Friday, February 26, 2010

Patrician Rudd

In Australia, a new term has been coined to describe PM Rudd's acceptance of full responsibility for the national home insulation, patrician politics. I laughed.

I can understand why Mr Rudd took the action he did because it deflected attention. Looking at his body language on TV, I am sure, too, that he found the whole thing deeply upsetting at a personal level. You can get a feel for this if you read the transcript of last night's ABC 7.30 report. However, the whole affair has reinforced two trends in Australian public life that I think are unfortunate.

The first is the continued presidentialisation of the Australian system. Traditionally, the Australian PM was first among equals  - ministers had real authority and took real responsibility. I am not talking here about the oft discussed question as to when a Minister should resign because of a bungle, rather the processes of decision making themselves.

The trend to transfer decision making power to Cabinet from Ministers was clear back in the late 1970s. Even then, it was beginning to slow decision processes. Today we are going through the further process of transfer of power to the PM from Cabinet. You see, once the PM accepts this type of general responsibility, makes himself accountable, then he has to follow through with greater direct control and supervision.

In practical terms, this flows through to an increased monitoring and power role for what are called the central coordinating agencies, including the PM's own Department. In real terms, the PM cannot personally control the whole machinery of Government, it's just too big and complex. He therefore has to rely on his officials. In turn, they have to set up reporting and control systems so that they can assist the PM to fulfil his newly assumed responsibilities. Inevitably, this further complicates decision making.

The second trend likely to be reinforced is the continued growth in the obsession with risk. Again looking at this from a practical management perspective, all new policies and programs involve different types of risk. As a policy adviser, manager or project manager, part of my role has always been identification of risks that might cause policy or program failure. This is not always easy. For that reason, the monitoring of progress against plan, the identification of emerging risks that must be addressed, is part of the role.

Clearly there have been failures here in the national home insulation scheme. Again just looking at it from a management perspective, the most important issue is the plotting of those failures, the identification of what (if anything) might have been done to avoid them or to ensure a faster response once the problem was identified. This should be a learning process, not a blame game.

I have absolutely no problem with the formalisation of risk assessment processes if this improves decision making in the first instance and then subsequent responses. It is not clear to me that current approaches actually do this, rather the opposite. I say this for two main reasons.

First, they place an emphasis on the identification of risks at early stages when not all risks can in fact be identified. This, in combination with the rising power of the central coordinating agencies, complicates decision processes.

Secondly, and this is linked, they can actually slow response times when risks are identified. The reason for this is simple and human. If you are locked in to an early analysis of risks, if you are then measurable by performance indicators based on the early planning stage, it becomes far harder to say hey minister we made a mistake, this is what we should do about it. You try to sort things when in fact you should be reporting problems and recommending basic changes.

An added problem in the modern public service is one of time. Public servants are so busy doing and reporting, that there is very little time for reflection and review.

Speaking at a purely personal level, there is no longer time for the type of reflective papers and minutes that I used to write just exploring issues in advance of recommendations and decisions. I know that my then Minister sometimes found me far too wordy, although he was pretty tolerant. However, he could be sure that when we put up firm recommendations, the course proposed was likely to work.

We could also respond very quickly when problems did emerge. This was partially a matter of trust, more that we knew what we were doing because we had worked things through. Sometimes things became a bit frightening - it can be quite nerve wracking dealing with things in very quick time when you know that failure will lead to a political storm. You try managing the threat of a national strike in a critical industry area based on your own recommendations! Yet we muddled through.

I am not saying that we did not make mistakes, we did. Sometimes they were own fault, more often they were in fact imposed upon us. Yet in seven years as a Commonwealth SES officer dealing with often sensitive matters with a major focus on structural change, not once did we cause a significant political problem for our Ministers.

Of course, things were a lot easier and simpler then. I did not have to worry too much about specifically Departmental objectives and KPIs. Within its broad ambit, the Department existed to serve the minister and government then in power. We could and did advise, but this was set by the bounds of government policies and objectives. We would point to problems with those policies and objectives, recommend new approaches, but at the end of the day our Minister and, beyond him, the Government was boss.

Finally, in looking at the home insulation program, my instinctive reaction is to think just how much fun it would have been to manage it. Here you have a major national program with significant risks that has to be delivered in short compass. To make it work, you have to coordinate and cajole lots of people, to listen, to bang together lots of heads. You have to be prepared to make firm recommendations, to act to correct errors, to fight for the changes required to make things work. As I said, fun.

In all this, and accepting that I do not know all the details, I feel sorry for Mr Garrett. Bluntly, I feel that he has been let down by his Department for whatever reason.

Despite Mr Rudd's views, a minister is not a manager. His or her role is to define the policy and values framework. The Department is responsible not just for advice, but for delivery. I actually find it incomprehensible that a Department of State would place their minister in this position. I suspect that they were all just too busy playing modern public administration to recognise their traditional responsibilities to their minister.       

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