Australian governments in general seem to have problems managing major infrastructure projects. This seems particularly the case with the federal government and the 10-year-old national broadband network. (That is not to say the opposition, in government, would do any better.)
I recently had reason to consider the Roman approach to management, and there are a few lessons that can still be learned from what worked for them for several hundred years.
One of their major projects was building Hadrian's Wall in northern England, starting in AD122. At the time, it would have compared in scale to today's NBN project. The Romans completed the massive task in six years.
In July, I walked along what is left of the wall. It was clearly a feat of engineering, built to the highest possible standard – and built to last. Its subsequent deterioration has been due mainly to farmers and builders pillaging the stonework over a period of nearly 2000 years.
The project's rationale was to protect Roman-occupied territory from the marauding northern barbarians, act as a territorial boundary, and make it easier for administrators to tax people transiting the wall. It runs 135 kilometres from coast to coast, roughly between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle, and south of today's border between England and Scotland.
Hadrian's Wall was built of squared stone. The wall itself was three metres wide and five to six metres high. The project required not only the wall itself to be built, but also watchtowers, forts and protected settlements – with all their associated infrastructure, such as connecting roads. The barrier also comprised ditches and berms. The forts were spaced every five miles, with watchtowers on the wall every mile between the forts.
Building Hadrian's Wall was therefore a major engineering project presenting considerable environmental challenges. It was built over undulating ground in an area with a bleak and unpredictable climate. Much of the building material needed to be brought in from elsewhere.
Emperor Hadrian himself decided to go ahead with the project after he visited the area and reviewed all the options. He made the three occupying legion commanders responsible and accountable for building the wall, and he required progress reports on a regular basis. We know the legions took pride in their work because they put their unit names on their sections of wall as they completed them.
It is just as true today that a major infrastructure project requires decisive ongoing leadership, hands-on monitoring, localised problem-solving, a well-managed budget, completion time lines and local pride in a job well done.
In Australia, democracy and a lack of leadership continuity make it difficult to undertake or complete major long-term projects. At the same time, our federal system lends itself to blaming state and/or territory governments when things go wrong.
Since its inception, the NBN has been plagued by management-by-committee, cost overruns, shifting goalposts and delivery delays. Under Hadrian's approach to management and accountability, the NBN as originally envisaged could probably have been completed in the same time frame as Hadrian's Wall.
Another issue of interest was the Roman approach to citizenship. The Imperial Roman Army was multicultural, with southern Europeans in the minority. At that time, the army consisted of 28 Roman legions of about 5000 men each and 250 regiments of auxiliaries of about 500 men each. Auxiliaries were recruited from throughout the Roman empire. Some nationalities that made up the foreign auxiliary were recruited because they had particular martial skills, such as in archery or operating as mounted cavalry.
Non-Romans were not usually compelled to join the auxiliary; they joined because it guaranteed them wages, food, medical care, a better standard of living and, eventually, Roman citizenship. A "foreigner" needed to serve 25 years in the auxiliary to gain Roman citizenship for himself, his family and descendants. It also qualified him for a lifetime pension and other benefits. Citizenship was highly prized because it was the ultimate privilege.
In modern Australia, by contrast, it could be argued that we have made citizenship and social benefits too easy to obtain – and, in consequence, often undervalued or underappreciated.
Clive Williams is an honorary professor at the Australian National University's centre for military and security law and an associate professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.