Gauteng's e-roads: A path to prosperity or moral decline?

2013-04-26 05:48

Ordinary people and public managers alike are easily prone to making unethical decisions. We may care about being moral and behaving ethically, yet we tend to justify and distance ourselves from the unethical behaviour we perform in our everyday life, especially when these behaviours are influenced by group pressure.

My recent research on the Gauteng e-toll project highlights that public managers are selective about acknowledging the negative consequences of their decisions. I point out that their decisions are being disguised as a worthy cause, although it is likely to result in widespread harm for the majority of people. Drawing from the work of Albert Bandura from Stanford University, the results of the research suggest that public managers morally vindicated their decision for e-tolling: by endowing it with socially worthy purposes; communicating about it in seemingly innocent language; displacing and spreading the responsibility for the decision; downplaying, distorting and denying its negative consequences; comparing it favourably to alternative solutions; and ridiculing and blaming groups that are opposed to the project.

They used social, economic, legal and symbolic rhetoric to justify the project. However this rhetoric is unlikely to be translated into tangible benefits for citizens in the future. These include: claiming social benefits of e-tolling such as more 'family time' for motorists; the importance of national government meeting their debt obligations; protecting the integrity of the e-toll decision when compared to alternatives such as a fuel levy; the promotion of the free enterprise system and black economic empowerment; and the readiness to host the world cup soccer tournament. These kinds of lofty justifications pretend to communicate the rationale of the project but it really doesn't.

I found some of the comments by organizations involved in such projects locally and globally disturbing. Banks and private investment firms are turning once publicly owned road infrastructure into a "new asset class"; a "fixed-income proxy" which "delivers similar yield expectations to high-yield bonds and real estate, with less risk". E-roads have become investments that are "safe like high-grade bonds" but with "stock market-like returns". After all, competition is limited and it is difficult to build a rival e-road. Citizens have become "captive customers" from whom "cash flows are guaranteed" (Thornton 2007).

Not surprisingly, a report by SANRAL - the state owned enterprise seemingly driving the project - is also steeped in insidious free market rhetoric. The report states that: "The current ‘free at the point of use’ system comes at a very high economic cost. ‘Free’ roads breed congestion; ‘free’ roads slow up freight delivery, ‘free’ roads get people to work late; ‘free’ roads reduce economic growth, and they slow employment creation". Until we have carefully probed the veracity of these assumptions making such inflated statements is totally misguided. There are very few independent investment evaluations of urban e-tolling projects around the globe and they are inconclusive at best.

The e-toll gantries installed on Gauteng’s busy road network are fitted with information and communication technology (ICT) – that recognises vehicle identifiers such as e-tags and vehicle number plates – which makes it possible to automatically deduct toll fees from a road user’s registered e-toll account. It seems to me that politicians and public managers are being carried away with excitement, by the possibilities of new ICT developments to address transformational issues. They are vastly overestimating what can be achieved and are being ‘seduced’ by overly enthusiastic and dedicated salespeople and consultants from private industries locally and internationally – who will say or do pretty much anything to ‘flog’ their product or service. We cannot allow the public road infrastructure of our country to become the ‘investment plaything’ of powerful global corporations.

The best way to avoid these problems in the future is to increase public participation in the governance of these projects. For instance, SANRAL could have distributed informational material to citizens that discussed the pros and cons of the different road financing options. From a policy perspective, SANRAL and the Department of Transport could have conducted surveys and interviews of citizens (not just about the approval of an appropriate road financing option but also about the social impact of such decisions). Given the magnitude of the spend and the influence that this project has on the welfare of citizens, the Gauteng Province could have held a public vote – with choices that extend beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – to inform public policy about road infrastructure financing. Citizens from all walks of life and the business sector could have been enrolled in the policy-making process, including participation in subcommittees, citizen review panels, and oversight committees.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a growing problem globally; role players from the public sector and their private sector partners will collectively resort to all kinds of strategies to justify decisions that are morally and rationally questionable – for political ends (e.g., staying in power) and private interests ends (e.g., profit).

The potential for inappropriate relationships between corporations and governments are growing. More specifically, corporations are exploiting advances in ICT to give the State increasingly more surveillance power over citizens, which they can misuse for party and private interests. Despite its promise, ICTs are being rooted in an interwoven social web of commerce and politics that can diminish the value of public interests. It has the power to transform and reduce the citizen into a consumer through mechanisms of privatisation and surveillance. It is not just the larger profits and revenue collection potential used for narrow interests that should concern us, but also the ‘gaze’ of the State as they attempt to use ICT advancements to privatise and productise our right to free speech and free movement.

Furthermore, being part of a complex project neutralises the role of the public manager in decision-making processes and therefore obscures their personal accountability. Managers working in state bureaucracies are especially vulnerable as their superiors can use their authority to ensure that their decisions are accepted. If subordinate public managers feel ‘ordered’, they may simply displace the responsibility for their actions on their superior.

A young democratic society like South Africa simply cannot rely on individual public managers – however righteous their personal moral standards may appear to be – to provide safeguards against morally questionable state expenditure. The media must continue to play a persistent role in exposing the sanitising language that public officials use to mask the harm caused by their procurement decisions and the misleading comparisons that they make to render their controversial decisions acceptable.

If politicians and public managers are to be responsible stewards of public resources, our broader social systems must make it ‘tough’ for them to evade their moral responsibility. Do we as citizens in South Africa and abroad have the energy to make these role players accountable? Time will tell ..but for now I am not very optimistic that we will.

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