NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Beware the "Unbiased Expert"

April 11, 2011

As President Obama calls for a new era of "doing big things" -- from creating a high-speed rail system to building wind farms -- past projects offer a simple warning: Beware the "unbiased expert," says Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.

This was one lesson learned from the investigation of the October 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster.  Former program manager Robert F. Thompson officially confirmed what many had long suspected:  NASA engineers and other interested parties fudged budget and performance numbers to gain congressional support for the multibillion-dollar project.

By 1980, the shuttle program had practically doubled its original budget; today, after three decades and almost $200 billion spent, it has missed almost every budget and performance goal, says Peterson.

The shuttle program is not unique, as demonstrated by European planning and policy professors Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter, who analyzed dozens of extravagant public works projects worldwide in their book "Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition."  They identify two common themes:

  • Endemic cost overruns.
  • Vast overstatement of projected public use.

The authors blame public-works fiascoes on a toxic mix of self-seeking "experts," politicians and private-sector interests -- combined with minimum public input.  They propose a straightforward solution: Give taxpayers a say.

Source: Pete Peterson, "Of Space Ships and Bullet Trains," City Journal, April 6, 2011.

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