Infrastructure can have a big effect on our lives.

That new train line or hospital complex could decrease journey times to work or make a lifesaving difference to medical treatment – but they don’t come cheap. The billion dollar spends associated with new universities or cross city tunnels tend to mean we see infrastructure decisions as one-off, yes-or-no, big ticket items.

But this approach means that we miss the most valuable opportunity of all, which is to leverage all our infrastructure spends by making them part of a broad, integrated vision. We shouldn’t just be deciding for the new hospital or against the proposed bypass, but thinking how the two will work together with our existing urban places and other proposed projects.

The trouble is, we often can’t see the infrastructure for the projects. Single issues cloud everything, with politicians staking their reputations on particular projects, while communities often descend into ugly fights over the location and nature of infrastructure projects. At the same time, all over Australia, residential developments go up first while schools, hospitals and transport are a distant second, leaving us scrambling to retrofit what should have been integrated to start with.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council is lucky to be able to draw on the collective wisdom and experience of our members and colleagues from across the building sector, who understand that infrastructure ‘bang for the buck’ can be increased several times over when we see the big picture of our infrastructure decisions.

The first step is to decide what we’re deciding. Unfortunately, right now different governments and departments use different criteria for assessing the business case for proposed projects. Treasuries are notorious for seeing everything in financial terms, for example, whereas one state government might use a different assessment tool or base decisions on different data sets than another.

A solution here is for the nation’s infrastructure advisory agency, Infrastructure Australia, to come with a business case decision-making tool that could be used Australia-wide, along with an agreed set of metrics to report on performance afterwards. That’s not as simple as it sounds, and would require support from the federal government to achieve, as well as commitment to bipartisan support for infrastructure projects to decouple them from the short term political cycle.

What’s a ‘business case’ anyway? Governments also use vastly different methodologies for producing business cases and working out what an infrastructure spend will cost and what it will deliver in return. Some models are imported from overseas contexts and simply don’t take account of conditions here in Australia. Others account for completely different factors, from monetary cost to social benefit. Again, a standardised system coordinated by Infrastructure Australia is the only solution to ensure we’re comparing apples with apples.

Data is another weak spot. It’s no good arguing about whether the new train station is worthwhile when one group only has access to the financial figures and the other only has journey times. We need to collect the same data for projects across the country, and once again Infrastructure Australia is well placed to come up with a system that all governments and agencies can use.

Infrastructure also needs much better PR. Concerned communities are easy to write off as engaging in knee-jerk NIMBYism, but it’s up to the people and agencies proposing projects to get buy-in from the people they are supposed to benefit. That means seeking real community input much earlier, so communities can help shape the vision, rather than presenting them with a fait accompli and then attempting to engage after the fact. Communities that truly understand the benefits and are invested in the outcomes could be enormously powerful advocates for infrastructure projects.

So that’s the business case for improving our business cases for infrastructure. Australia spends billions on infrastructure, and it affects all aspects of our lives. Improving the way we decide on those projects is a relatively small effort to make to ensure our infrastructure delivers what it’s meant to: a better life for all Australians.