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The San Giorgio Bridge in Genova: an example of good practice in public-private collaboration

Only 5.1 billion euro of Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) were actually spent in 2021, instead of the projected 13.7 billion euro. That equates to less than 40%, according to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (UPB). These data are worrying in light of the deadlines (as well as the ambitious objectives) of the PNRR, the financing plan that also links the availability of funds to timelines for construction projects. For this reason, studying the rebuild of the San Giorgio Bridge in Genova gives us useful methods and tools for tackling the PNRR challenge, in particular with respect to managing public works.

What made the difference in the Genova case? We believe it was the managerial approach. What’s more, the delivery date for the project was set in stone. So with this as the finish line, the administrative, technical, and financial pathways were mapped out that led to the ambitious end goal. Thanks also to the ability to build a solid alliance with private partners.

The San Giorgio Bridge opens new prospects for Italy, a country where the recurring themes in national narrative on infrastructure center on delays, legal disputes, commissioners responsible for projects, and procedures for awarding contracts. The reconstruction of the bridge in Genova, in contrast, shines a light on three key elements.

The first is that the secret to success doesn’t come on a regulatory level, with the declaration of a state of emergency, but rather lies in the capacity to bring to bear a sense of urgency. The only exception in the reconstruction process, pertaining to the powers of the Commission, was the faculty to apply the EU Directive on Public Procurement directly (24/2014/EU). But this measure certainly didn’t bypass the process of comparing a number of competitive bids. Instead it was the need for the city of Genova to return to normal as soon as possible that represented the means for counteracting and overcoming administrative lassitude. Beyond the breach of public trust, the city without a bridge was costing its citizens and the production system 6 million euro a day.

The second element relates to dealing with unexpected events. Of course, there is no such thing as public works without complications, but the key is how they are dealt with. In Genova, there was a risk of asbestos contamination from demolishing the portions of the bridge that were still standing after the collapse. The risk management approach here was all about taking full responsibility, without hiding behind the opinions of technical experts (which were precisely that – opinions, not decisions), but also without fear of facing the people of Genova.

The third element has to do with the nature of the relationship between the public administration and the economic operators, a relationship which shifted from an approach imbued with diffidence to an alliance focused on generating public value. This is what allowed both parties to take more of a results-oriented approach to managing unforeseen contingencies and physiological criticalities.

The case of the bridge in Genova also gives us food for thought for the debate on public works management, a pressing issue especially in light of the opportunities and the imminent deadlines set down in the PNRR. What role should commissioners play? What model should public-private collaboration follow? And lastly, what aspects of this experience would be readily replicated?

Judging from the experience of the San Giorgio reconstruction project, apparently the winning move was to assign the role of commissioner and administrator to the same person - the mayor - someone close to the citizens of Genova and committed to the city. Another undeniable advantage of this choice was being able to set up a commission structure that could count on the collaboration of municipal offices. Lastly, the project team was formed that brought together the rationales of the different project partners (the Court of Auditors and the Public Prosecutor); this decision reflects the fact that a results orientation is not incompatible with administrative constraints.

The Genova experience also evidenced the managerial competencies of the Commissioner. This person proved to be a formidable leader, not only as a politician working for his community, but also in the context of the Commission itself and in dealing with economic partners; a leader who surrounded himself with competent managers, and adeptly leveraged a strong, results-oriented contractor who respected the timeline and the quality of the works and put in the effort the project required; a leader who knew how to handle the contractual relationship not from a bureaucratic-administrative perspective, but by exploring and identifying optimal solutions thanks to a continual exchange of information and ideas, and by negotiating with economic operators.

The Genova case teaches us that we need public managers with vision, leadership and project management capabilities, people who step up and take responsibility for emergencies, risks, and value creation, who can lead a team of competent people (internal and external to the PA), and interact with the market to embark on new pathways for sustainable collaboration with measurable results. Unlike in the past, today we need to recognize that taking on risk is an inevitable working condition in the PA, because this is the only way major challenges can be tackled. In such a context, we need to prioritize strategy and management, and not formalism and the search for the perfect procedure, one which eliminates any risk of error.

The case also underscores the meaning of public value as a prerogative in private sector as well as the PA. Public value means not only building infrastructure, but also realizing a project that has to minimize environmental, social, and economic costs for the city. A project that has to guarantee the safety of workers and at the same time prompt the market to make the best resources available. Communication management is arguably the clearest example of how an economic operator in this case collaborated in the creation of public value: not only economic and commercial value for the city of Genova, but also the emotional value of the reconstruction, the value of transparency and accountability toward the citizen-owners of the project, the value of people and the skills they dedicated to the project, the educational value of a project that brings the focus back onto know-how in building infrastructure and the role of infrastructure projects. The city was given virtual access to the building site, and could listen to the stories of the people who worked there; this allowed the community to feel involved in the reconstruction project.

On the other hand, to work with the PA, private entities need to fully understand the complexity of the context in which the administration operates, as well as the significance of public interest, a multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder concept, underpinning the realization of an investment. When a private company is capable of deploying this kind of managerial skill, it engenders trust between the parties which is the key to governing a public-private relationship in the context of the execution of a public works contract.

All of the above leads us to say that we can find true replicability and the true innovative scope of this case in the ability to synchronize the multidisciplinary competencies in the commission structure; in the managerial stance utilized to handle the contract and the relationship with economic players; and in having inspired the commitment of all the people who contributed to realizing the project, in big ways and small; and finally in the various models for collaboration actioned by the economic operators.

In Genova the realization of a public works project represents a successful response to one of the most devastating infrastructure disasters in Italy and in the world. But what was done there goes beyond that. Spurred on by a diverse, forward-looking public administration, the private partners gave it their all, deploying the best of their competencies, and not only making it possible to complete the bridge on time, but also supporting the public administration in more intangible objectives, in particular rebuilding the trust of all stakeholders, first and foremost, the citizens of Genova. This project is a case in point that demonstrates to the country and the entire world that in Italy, we are capable of building infrastructure rapidly and transparently.