Friday, July 10, 2009

Ideas, simplicity and continuity in public policy

Briefly continuing the discussion began in When reform fails, I concluded in that post:

To my mind, they (modern approaches to public policy and administration) are no longer either, to use the jargon, especially efficient or effective. They tend to exclude the non-measurable from consideration. They impede innovation and creativity, making it hard to get things done, harder still to get new things done. Without fundamental change, I have little hope that things will improve.

Maybe I am too pessimistic or perhaps just wrong. However, I do feel that the current emphasis on activity, measurement and control actually crowds out new approaches.

I have used the term command and control, one borrowed from the military, to describe one central element in current approaches. The key feature of a command and control system is that it is machine like, intended to make things happen in a defined way within defined bounds. It also aims to give those in charge a broader span of control.

Such systems can work effectively, but can also struggle should things change in unexpected ways. They also act to limit new ideas and initiatives that fall outside defined processes.

Public policy changes all the time. Sometimes these are changes at the margin, at other times we have major shifts. We can see the same thing in the private sector in the emphasis on constant re-structuring. The desire of new CEOs to reshape organisations seems a constant.

This gives rise to a number of problems.

To begin with, the more complicated the system the harder it is to change. We see this in modern computer systems all the time. If you were to flow chart modern Government, you would find that it is just as complex in its interactions as any computer system. This adds to the risks of  perverse outcomes.

Then, too, constant change ignores a basis reality of life: it takes time to do things. Time is required to define, to implement and then to learn from experience. The difficulty with constant changes in direction is that those changes often wipe out the potential gains from previous approaches. They impose a double cost whammy - the cost of doing plus the opportunity cost of things lost.

Perhaps my biggest complaint, I accept that this is a personal thing, is that I find current approaches simply boring!

If you look at Mr Rudd's education revolution, there is very little that is new. To argue, as one presently has to, about things such as school league tables, the nature of uniform national curricula or institutional mechanisms for control and quality in vocational education is not very interesting from my perspective.

There is nothing in the discussion that is in any way original. It's all a rerun of past arguments. I get a bit tired of just recycling past arguments.

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