There's an old joke about Europe that goes something like this: In Heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the engineers are German and it’s all organised by the Swiss. In Hell, however, the police are German, the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are British, the police are German and it’s all organised by the Italians.

Of late, the Germans have been doing their best to challenge how others see them, but not in a good way. When it comes to major public sector building projects, Germany is proving anything but a model of teutonic efficiency.

According to Spiegel Online “Stuttgart's train station, Hamburg's concert house and Berlin's airport… are currently competing to be seen as the country's most disastrous.” The airport and train station development are costing billions more than expected, but the real shocker is the concert hall – which should have cost €187 million, but now has a price tag of €865 million.

Normally, when this sort of thing happens, those responsible go to ground. However, Der Spiegel persuaded the chief architects of each project  – Christoph Ingenhoven, Meinhard von Gerkan and Pierre de Meuron – to come in for a joint interview. Naturally, they were keen to deflect the blame from themselves, but their answers revealed a lot about the way that project costs escalate.

The most fundamental problem is that the politicians and officials who commission major public works never spend enough time or money working out what they really want:

  • De Meuron: What makes it unnecessarily expensive are the legal issues and everything resulting from them. Scheduling delays, project disputes and even shutdowns have played a key role in pushing the price up to this level. Look at this cup in front of me. Let's say it represents the [concert hall]. They initially said it had to be white and somehow contain tea. That was roughly what was stated in the call for bids at the time. But no one said how big it should be, that it also needed a saucer and possibly even a spoon. And if all of that isn't in the specifications, you cannot, with a clear conscience, set a price or agree to fixed schedules.”

We’re familiar with this problem in Britain – especially when it comes to public sector IT projects. However, it’s not all down to clueless ministers and civil servants – the construction industry is all tto willing to exploit government incompetence:

  • Ingenhoven: Many in the industry are prepared to force their way into projects at prices they know are unrealistic.
  • Gerkan: But these construction companies have complete confidence in their departments that handle negotiations on additional features, that is, the ones that aggressively make subsequent demands. In the end, these companies get their money.
  • Ingenhoven: I would call it the ‘Department for the Invention of Additional Features.’
  • Gerkan: ‘Invention of Additional Features’? That's good.”

These problems seem to be particularly bad in Germany:

  • De Meuron: There was something that never made sense to me: Why does Germany, the country that carries half of Europe, have these problems with complex development projects? I believe that building is teamwork, like football. If everyone on the football team doesn't want to win, you'll lose, even if you have the most expensive players. In other words, it only works when you have a shared goal and team spirit. But if everyone merely defends his own interests in a building project, escalation ensues.”

The link between Germany’s inability to manage public sector projects and its wider role in Europe is an interesting one. If the German system can’t cope with the construction of a concert hall or a train station, then what hope is there for the construction of a fiscal union, on which the very survival of the Eurozone depends?