Local Government
Making Infrastructure Relatable

Making Infrastructure Relatable

By Adam Probolsky.

If your kid came home with a D+ on her report card, you would start asking questions. How did things get this bad? Why didn’t we catch the problem sooner? And what’s the name of a good tutor?

Americans are in a similar predicament with our failing infrastructure. According to the latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country’s infrastructure gets a D+. That’s a marginally passing grade for our bridges, dams, highways and water systems.

For decades, civil engineers have lamented the lack of public support for a real infrastructure fix. There’s no question that Americans want to drive on safe roads, access reliable water sources and keep the lights on. We want our country to thrive, and understand that it costs money to rebuild necessary systems. Why, then, has rebuilding America’s infrastructure languished?

To understand current attitudes toward infrastructure, you can to go back to the country’s last great big investment: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. While today we think of highways as a necessity for trade and commerce, it wasn’t the only selling point. Part of the pitch for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was to ready the nation “in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.”

Highway advocates understood that framing transportation infrastructure in the context of the Cold War would increase the public’s intensity for the issue. It delivered a compelling narrative with a well-understood sense of urgency because it related to something on everyone’s mind.

In a similar fashion, there is a relatable message for supporting today’s infrastructure that should be tapped into, another layer of infrastructure we should all be concerned with but rarely talk about: software. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article highlights the shocking age of software that many cities and regional government agencies rely upon for major systems like billing, emergency communications and transit. Some of us have a nostalgia for 1980s software like the DOS prompt or Commodore 64 commands. But no one would be comfortable with either as the backbone for police and fire radios or water treatment plants in 2019. That is essentially though the reality for far too governments in the U.S. today.

In a recent Probolsky Research survey, more than half (54%) of Americans say they support upgrading decades-old software that is running critical infrastructure, “even if it costs millions.” How could it be that the same Americans who are wholly weary of most government spending, would open public coffers to upgrade software that is still working? It’s worth noting that 31% of Americans said just that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Perhaps support for spending on software updates is rooted in the fact that they upgrade the software on their smart phones on what seems like a monthly basis. And when you turn on an iPhone from just a few years ago, you can see the dramatic difference in look and feel of the operating system, but more importantly, the difference in speed. Americans know that software powers our world. And innovations happen every day.

Policymakers should not be afraid to support spending money on infrastructure. And they should know that it will be easy to make the case for upgrading and maintaining the underlying software that runs critical government systems.

Adam Probolsky is president of Probolsky Research, a Latina and woman owned market and opinion research company.

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