Infrastructure Canada is the national ministry of infrastructure rather than an independent government agency or advisory body. It designs and administers the national government's funding programs to infrastructure across a variety of sectors such as transportation, water, energy, and social infrastructure. Under the Canadian constitution, the national government actually has fairly limited jurisdiction over the ownership, planning and operations of infrastructure, which is primarily controlled at the provincial level. The country’s ten provinces and three territories then delegate considerable responsibility for infrastructure provision to the municipal governments. In 2016, only 2.1% of all public infrastructure in Canada was owned by the national government, compared with 58% owned by local governments, and 38.1% by the Provinces.
The Canadian federal government’s role in infrastructure has thus primarily been focused on supporting the funding and delivery of infrastructure carried out at the other levels of government. The national government can, to some extent, shape the types of infrastructure projects that get prioritized by other levels of government through the funding programs it puts in place. In 2018 Infrastructure Canada released the 12-year, $180 billion Investing in Canada national long-term infrastructure plan that allocates funding to five key classes of infrastructure: public transit, green infrastructure, social infrastructure, trade and transportation, and rural and norther infrastructure. Nearly all projects are proposed by other levels of government that make requests of the federal government for funding, which come through Infrastructure Canada. Infrastructure Canada negotiated bi-lateral agreements with each of the provinces and territories that establish how much money they will receive for each class of infrastructure. This ensures that there is an equitable allocation of national government funding to infrastructure across the entire country, while providing the provinces and their municipal subsidiaries with predictability and considerable flexibility to select their preferred projects within nationally set objectives.
When Infrastructure Canada is assessing whether to provide funding to provincial or municipal projects, the assessments of the merits of the project tend to be done on an ad hoc basis by the provincial or municipal project proponent, without standard assessment criteria or methodology. In practice the system is quite politicized rather than requiring rigorous evidence based cost-benefit assessments of value for money as the basis for decision making. Political negotiations between the different levels of government are often a critical driver in determining which projects will be prioritized. This has posed a challenge in terms of effectively allocating long-term funding to the most critically needed infrastructure. Additionally, Infrastructure Canada has developed a variety of new programs – the Smart Cities Challenge, the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation fund, and the launch of the Canada Infrastructure Bank – which extend the level of direct national involvement in evaluating, selecting, financing and delivering infrastructure projects initiated by the provincial and municipal governments, as well as private sector proponents.
As a line ministry of the government of Canada, Infrastructure Canada is accountable through the regular parliamentary mechanisms. The organization is overseen by the minister of Infrastructure and Communities. The government appoints the deputy minister who is the top leader that manages the operations of Infrastructure Canada. The programs and budgets of Infrastructure Canada receive parliamentary oversight and approval. There are no mandatory ex-post evaluations of Infrastructure Canada’s investment decisions and the outcomes that have been achieved. The organization does periodically publicly release progress reports and conducts performance reviews. It is also subject to audits and reviews by the national auditor general of Canada, which can conduct independent value for money studies of Infrastructure Canada’s projects and programs. A considerable gap in the Canadian infrastructure ecosystem is that there is not a formal, mandatory requirement to rigorously evaluate the outcomes of national government investment programs. There is thus a knowledge gap in terms of project delivery performance, and whether national government money spent on infrastructure is achieving the intended economic, social and environmental benefits.