Thursday, July 09, 2009

When reform fails

I have, in my own way, been something of a reformer. Looking back, I find it remarkable how many of the changes that I have been involved with have failed to achieve the desired results or, worse, have had quire perverse side-effects.

I was reminded of this by my continued reading of Jonathan Vance's book, the book that I referred to in Train Reading – Jonathan F Vance’s History of Canadian Culture.

The last part of the book deals with the post Second World War period. Here Vance traces the rise of the Arts bureaucracy, along with the idea of culture as an industry and of expenditure on the Arts as something that can and should be justified on economic grounds.

We can trace exactly the same process in Australia. Canadian wording and program structures could, with relatively minor wording modifications, stand as Australian examples.

I have never been an Arts bureaucrat. Where I enter the scene is as one of those who helped create the framework that would lead to concepts such as "the cultural industries."   

Robert S. McNamara, the great exponent of quantification and program structures, died this week. McNamara, a brilliant man, was in many ways the father of modern public service systems with their inputs, outputs and outcomes. Here, too, I stand condemned, although my guilt is less because I never shared the blind faith in measurement for its own sake. Measurement was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

There were good reasons to change previous structures and approaches.

From the time I was introduced to program budgeting in 1970 in my masters at ANU I argued in favour of its application in Australia as a way of better directing and integrating government activities. From 1983 I argued strongly that we needed to think of areas such as telecommunications, the arts and education as industry sectors since this would allow us to better identify and understand industry structure, conduct and performance. I saw this as important in improving sector performance.

I had no influence in the adoption of program budgeting approaches, rather more influence on the second. Now I wonder just how things went so wrong.

I am still a reformer. I do not want to go back to previous approaches, although that might actually be better than some current approaches. However, I do believe that our current approaches to management and public policy need fundamental change if they are to improve.

My core charge against our current systems is simply this.

To my mind, they 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.      

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