On current democratically elected governments the executive and legislative branches are permanently rotating, changing, sometimes to very different positions and supporting different policies. How can the current executive branch plan "long" term in such a system? By long term I mean ~10 years, as some infrastructure/legislative projects can take that much time to complete.

Note: this question refers to how it is currently done, not how it could be done (as this other question asks).

  • This is going to depend on each country and how they are setup
    – Joe W
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 18:37
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    This is a very interesting question, especially in the context of less functional democracies. However, you should narrow down the question at least for a specific region (e.g. US or Western Europe).
    – Alexei
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 18:59
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    I tried to narrow it down to "democracies with 3 branches of government", I didn't think that there could be that many ways of making long term planning in those systems. Do different places differ enough that there is a need for me to make it more narrow? Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:13
  • This question would probably be improved by clarifying what items are being planned about. I understand the intent if it comes to infrastructure, or even manufacturing (say building a weapon system like F35s). But what do legislative projects mean in this context? Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 23:36
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    @EmmanuelMess In that case, you should, IMHO, probably split it up as a separate question. Tax policy or privatizations are not multiyear projects - you prep the law (that can take years, potentially). Then you pass it and it comes into effect. And when there are cases of multi-year government policy projects - Brexit comes to mind though I don't associate that with "planning" - the issues are entirely different from infrastructure projects, so it is not meaningful to discuss both at the same time. Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 2:15

2 Answers 2


In many cases, the policy changes might appear extreme to people living within a country, but to outsiders they appear much less drastic. A common joke in Europe is that "the US has one party, with two rival right wings." This tries to describe that however different the parties might look to a voter, seen from the outside the differences are much less pronounced. Other factors may include:

  • Checks and Balances.
    In many democracies, a government or a parliamentary majority cannot simply dictate what is to happen, there are other chambers to balance them. The US has the Senate and the House of Representatives, the UK has the House of Commons, the Lords, and the devolved legislatures, Germany has the Bundestag and Bundesrat.
  • Rule of Law.
    A majority cannot simply overrule laws and precedents. Changing a constitution often requires a supermajority rather than a simple majority.
  • Investor Protection Treaties.
    For infrastructure in particular, many nations have signed treaties which mean that investors are protected against sudden changes in regulation.
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    This explains, more or less, why things don't change, but not how major policy decisions are enacted, committed to and maintained over the long term. Counter-example: NASA has difficulty thinking more than 4 years ahead because the priorities for space exploration change with each new administration.
    – user285
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 18:13
  • This works for things that can be put into law, but how does a government actually say "you see that space there? it needs to be a power plant in 10 years" by adding it into a law, or using check and balances? Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:07
  • Do governments usually use investors (and thus Investor Protection Treaties) to make long term decisions that 'stick'? Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:09
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    I think simple contractual law also applies here. A government will in most cases use some commercial entity to build infrastructure or to manufacture items (F35 for example). And especially in very large projects the contractual terms go into great detail on cancellation conditions and penalties. Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 23:31
  • @EmmanuelMess, governments pass public planning in the form of laws or decrees (e.g. zoning). Changing those does give investors cause to sue if e.g. a building permit is revoked.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 4:20

It's often done by just putting whatever project you are planning for into a state where it is not easily backed out of. This is spending lock-in, as stated in a comment, also known as sunk costs.

For example, the Site C Dam in BC has been under planning and construction for more than 2 decades. The currently elected left-of-center NDP, until recently in a coalition with the Greens (who really, really, really hate that dam) said it's too late to stop the Dam now, which it it inherited from the Liberals, a right-of-center party, too much money has been committed.

Also, keep in mind that, in normal politics, most big project have some level of cross-party acceptance, so the drive to cancel something may not always be that high. Some exceptions were Canada's long gun registry, cancelled after wasting $2B CAN and, one might expect, Trump's wall if he loses Nov 3.

  • So, a strategy is to sink as much money as possible, wouldn't that be a bit counterproductive, making bad publicity? Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:04
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    I am not saying it's a great idea, but in practice, you can often see governments scrambling to push in as much of their stuff in as possible. And it depends how popular/unpopular the original project is: if it's semi-popular, people will just take it as business as usual. If it's really unpopular, then people will be annoyed: bad publicity. Are you also talking about 6 months in advance? Or the last day in office of an incumbent? To an extent you could plan better if you had broad bipartisan support for something but then it would stick around anyway. Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:32
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    @EmmanuelMess It's not so much sinking more money into it as it is locking in the spending so that canceling the project has fewer benefits.
    – divibisan
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 20:49
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    Often the money is not sunk from the start, rather the project is passed with an overly optimistic cost estimate and as the project progresses, costs increase more and more. Increases by a factor of 3 or 4 are not uncommon for long running infrastructure projects and can only partly be explained by inflation (which would be part of a solid calculation in the first place)
    – Manziel
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 7:43

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