Getting Value for Money on Public Infrastructure Spending: The Case for Community Benefits Agreements

by Kevin Page

Albert Einstein famously said, “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”.  

Canadian governments are embarking on a large and complex expansion of public infrastructure spending over the next decade. Serious concerns have been raised about the lack of planning that underpins the expansion. The increase in public infrastructure spending is being deficit financed––this means future taxpayers will bear the brunt of the cost of this spending. This may be okay if future taxpayers receive important benefits from the new infrastructure––better transit, better social housing, a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Polling numbers from public opinion research firms indicate that trust in Government remains very low.  While we may want to trust the government’s initiative to address infrastructure gaps, we do not have a plan to verify and hold the government accountable.

One initiative by the Ontario government holds some promise to help promote value and trust with respect to the increased spending on public infrastructure­­––it relates to the design and implementation for Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs).  The initiative is written in the 2015 Ontario Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act:

(13) Infrastructure planning and investment should promote community benefits, being the supplementary social and economic benefits arising from an infrastructure project that are intended to improve the well-being of a community affected by the project, such as local job creation and training opportunities (including for apprentices), improvement of public space within the community, and any specific benefits identified by the community.

The potential scope and impact of CBAs in future public infrastructure spending remains an open question but will depend importantly on the building of capacity at the community level. A report prepared by Armine Yalnizyan, the well-known economist consulting for the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD), draws from experiences in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere to explore opportunities, best practices, and potential governance supports to help maximize the returns on public infrastructure investments.  

Could governments find opportunity to promote citizen engagement through the design and implementation of CBAs? Could citizen engagement in the investment of public infrastructure promote value and trust? Canadian governments are planning to spend more than $500 billion of taxpayer money on public infrastructure over the next ten years. Citizens need to be engaged. Governments need to create opportunity and build capacity to design and implement CBAs.

As my colleague Armine has so eloquently stated, “community development is about supporting the development of partnerships and relationships of trust between developers/proponents and governments and communities.  The expenditure of huge amounts of money offers a rare opportunity to race to the top and learn from each other, developing best practices in a process that will unfold repeatedly across Canada; but we can only optimize that learning with the right institutional supports to all parties in planning, delivering, and evaluating community benefits programs. “

CBAs are not a substitute for a national needs assessment or plan or world-class due diligence, but they may prove to be an important and essential support. The future is near.