Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Jenny Macklin and problems in NT indigenous housing

Yesterday Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin released the report reviewing the initial operations of the $672m Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program. This program, now part of the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing, was intended to deliver 750 new houses by 2013 in Northern Territory remote indigenous communities.

Problems in delivery and cost-over runs associated with the Program became a scandal that brought the Northern Territory Government to the point of political collapse. This review by two senior public servants was one outcome. You can find a copy of the report here.

I am not close enough to the NT position to comment on the detail of the on-ground problems, but I wanted to point to a few of the things that appear to stand out from the report.

Look, first, at the Program objectives as outlined on page eleven of the report. This program's core focus is to improve housing. However, of the seven key objectives:

  • One, the first, deals with housing outcomes.
  • The second is a fairly vague statement on quality
  • Five deal in one way or another with the way the delivery process itself should work.

Of these five:

  • One is concerned with Aboriginal participation and skills acquisition
  • A second mandates community consultation
  • Two deal with cost reduction and management best practice
  • One is a time deadline.

Pages ten to sixteen deal with the history of the Program, and a somewhat complicated history it is too.

Pages seventeen to twenty one deal with project governance as it was. The term "governance" has become very popular and is also misused in that it confuses what is properly project management, the actual doing, with project oversight. The result in this case appears to be a remarkably complex structure that effectively sucked project authority up to the Joint Steering Committee. The over-sight body or governance body became the decision body.

I have written about this type of problem a fair bit because it has become a very common problem.

Sensibly, the number of decision layers in the project is to be reduced from six(!) to three.

The review then points to issues with cost-over-runs. This links straight to the objectives.

The quality objective states that housing will be constructed/re-furbished to an appropriate but undefined standard. The consultation (relationships) objective mandates (in a somewhat complicated way) community consultation. The review concludes that one reason for higher costs is that local consultation led to bigger than expected houses with additional features such as sleep-outs. I quote:

It is clear that in the development of initial packages of work an imbalance emerged between program objectives.Elements such as design and community engagement were elevated to the detriment of the unit cost required to achieve program targets, thereby skewing program outcomes.

Construction costs are to be capped at a level sufficient to deliver housing at a normal public housing standard. Consultation processes are to be shortened.

There have clearly been delivery issues at NT Government level. However, in considering Minister Macklin's response - Jenny Macklin's housing ultimatum is a typical headline - it is helpful to remember two things.

The first is that, to some degree at least, these program failures reflect broader systemic failures of the type I have talked about before. The second is that both the program objectives and indeed at least part of the governance structures such as the role of Joint Steering Committee came out of Canberra. The responsibility for program difficulties is at least a shared one. 

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