Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cogito Ergo Est - I think therefore it is

The repercussions of the problems experienced by Australia's national home insulation scheme continue to rumble around the nation.

Chris Uhlmann had a biting piece on the ABC's The Drum , Insulation fiasco: actions speak louder than words. I had to laugh.

In describing the Rudd Government's overall policy approach, Uhlmann turned Descartes' phrase - Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am - on its head: cogito ergo est, I think therefore it is. Ouch. Its really quite a clever description. I wish I had thought of it myself.

I noticed that today's Australian has three stories on the national home insulation scheme plus an on-line poll on whether or not Environment Minister Garrett should keep his job. At the moment with 8,362 votes lodged, the no vote at 71.85% is way ahead.

Ninemsn has a similar on-line poll: there voters are asked should Mr Garrett resign? It's closer here than the Australian, although the results are the same. With 110,590 votes to this point, 53.4% support Mr Garret's resignation.

Beyond this, the Sydney Morning Herald has two stories linked to the home insulation scheme's problem, while the ABC has one.

You will see what I mean when I say the problems with the scheme continue to rumble round the nation.

  The headline on one of the SMH stories, Jacob Saulwick's Spend, mend, and defend, rather neatly captures the Australian Goverment's present position on the big economic stimulus package.

Jacob Saulwick points to some of the issues that have arisen across NSW in the roll-out in the social housing and schools arena.

NSW will deliver on time and budget in the social housing area. However, with a tight cash average spend limit of $300,000 plus very tight deadlines, Housing NSW has adopted a centralised approach focused on investment ready or near to ready medium density developments.

The Department has tried to avoid big developments that will lead to heavy social concentrations, thus replicating past social problems with housing estates. Still, the constraints mean that significant developments have been plonked down everywhere. This has led to local protests across NSW from local residents and councils concerned about a range of impacts from lack of car parking (cash constraints limit things such as this) to conflict with visual appearance and the existing built environment.

To ensure effective delivery on time and budget, the NSW Government took planning approvals away from local government and instead delegated them to Housing NSW subject to certain constraints. This has added to local protests.

I had been wondering when this one might start breaking into public view. Because of my work and writing, I monitor some twenty local newspapers, so I have watched this one emerge over the last six months as work got underway. The cumulative effect has now reached something of a critical mass point so far as broader reporting is concerned.

Another issue that has emerged in delivery terms is shortage of trades people. In my early reporting on the stimulus package I suggested that it would have differential effects across the country. I tested this by looking at some specific areas.

Ten million dollars of development work in a major city is neither here nor there. The same amount spent in a regional area with limited trades people is a very different matter, leading to local building booms and associated trades shortages. This is one of the reasons why the roll-out of the schools' program has been delayed.

None of this should be construed as a criticism, although individual elements can be criticised. Rather, I am painting a picture to suggest why the Rudd Government suddenly finds itself entering a dog days period politically.

The early responses to the Rudd Government focused on broader picture items. If you look at the early media coverage in the Government's early days it was generally positive, supportive of Mr Rudd's stated aspirations. Very few focused on delivery issues, fewer pointed to the problems inherent in some of the Government's proposals. Then all reporting was overwhelmed by the Global Financial Crisis.

With problems now surfacing across a number of Federal Government initiatives at the one time, the media spot light has turned to delivery delays and failures.

The sheer size and ambitious nature of the Government's initial program along with its stated timing and plethora of performance objectives combined with the scale and timing of the Global Financial Crisis to concentrate delivery problems in a short space. The overwhelming media coverage has moved from generally positive reporting to a litany of problem and delivery failure stories.     

In another piece, this time in the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Glover turned a satirical eye on the Government's My School web site. The piece begins: 

Jocasta is a big fan of the new My Home website, a government initiative that allows people to measure how they compare with statistically similar households nationwide. Jocasta believes it contains all the information she needs to drive some real change.

I leave it to you to read the rest.

Satire is extremely difficult to manage in political terms. There was satire in the some of the early reporting on the Rudd Government, but it was generally sympathetic, focused especially on Mr Rudd's personal idiosyncrasies. Now responses to things such as Mr Rudd's performance on Q&A have a far harsher edge.

All this must make it very difficult for the Government to maintain focus. Its capacity to do so while also modifying and, if necessary, walking away from specific policies and programs that clearly won't work will determine its longevity.

At the time that the Rudd Government was elected and in the months immediately following, I argued that there were basic weaknesses in approach that if not addressed would bring about major problems. As examples see The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends  Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs (22 November 2007), Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu (22 April 2008), Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu - Managerialism and systemic failure (29 April 2008)  Mr Rudd's problems - trouble in the school yard (28 May 2008),  Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down (30 May 2008). You will see that I focused especially on management and delivery issues. 

I take no special pleasure in the feeling that I was right. My comments were simply based on experience. 

If you look at two of my recent posts -  Congratulations to PM Rudd on Q&A and  Insulation, pressure cookers and Minister Garrett - you will see that I have switched position a little. Now that the media and political focus has switched to delivery problems, I am concerned that we will get another set of problems. Forlorn hope that it is, I think that the Government needs to be given a little space in which to work through current problems.   


Interesting radio discussion while I was out on one of those home improvement shows about insulation. Now I just about as much about home insulation as I do about quantum physics. That is to say, not a great deal. So I learned a lot.

Part of the discussion and radio call-in dealt with problems that have always existed in the home insulation sector. This is one of the things about which I had no idea, the degree to which problems and failures might have been expected, some unavoidable (you cannot legislate shoddy workmanship out of existence), some avoidable.   


Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

The “one million homes” stat has now been repeated often enough that it must be true…?

And there’s a figure of 40,000 floating around as being potentially dangerous, but let’s double it plus some, to 100, 000 – just for ease of calculation.

This means that this one, quite large, government initiative - which was basically established as part of our government’s rapid response to the GFC – now has a possible “failure” rate of 10%

I just wish I could quote a 90% success rate for decisions in my life.

Also, I would like Chris Uhlmann to check with the auditors for Woolworths or ANZ to see if a 14-15,000 audit sample out of a million transactions would be considered sufficient – given Garrett’s demonstrable reactions to problems as they have been identified and “solved”.

I remember reading and agreeing with your “Slow Down Mr Rudd” posting, but the “failure rate” currently being agonised over is evidence more of success than failure.

Four deaths is a tragedy, as is “more that 1000 homes at risk”, but is the bald quotation of those numbers useful for anything else other than selling newspapers, paying shock jocks, and feeding TV commentators?

I just find great irony in the title for Uhlmann’s piece: “actions speak louder than words”

And all this is from a usually conservative voter.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good points, KVD, although I don't think that the decision analogy itself is necessarily a good one because it equates a decision with the doing.

All processes involve failure rates. Here there are two different processes. One is the program itself, the second the way in which individual contractors themselves delivered. The installation decisions that led to people's death, for example, were made by contractors or the people working for them.

So far as the Government itself is concerned, the key issues to my mind are the extent to which the Government can or should have forseseen problems, along with the nature of the responses. The media analysis not only mixes the two processes together, but also seems to assume that that there should be a zero failure rate, an impossibility.

You are absolutely correct, of course, on the sample point. When I get a chance to reflect, I must try to disentangle all these issues just to ensure that I am clear in my own mind.