My first post for the new year. I am not making any new year's resolutions, at least no public ones. I feel too silly when I fail to achieve them!
In some ways, 2013 began as 2012 ended.
Here in Australia, the in-passing claim by Families Minister Jenny Macklin that she could live on the Newstart allowance (the dole) of $35 per day has been met with derision. It was one of those stupid slips made double unfortunate by the timing; she made the comments on the day that more than 80,000 single parents were shifted from the parenting payment to the lower Newstart allowance, leaving some up to $110 a week worse off.
Meantime, John McTernan's report Are You Being Served? Towards More Responsive Public Services has been release. Mr McTernan claims to be a global leader on public service leadership, wrote his report while he was Adelaide Thinker in Residence and is now apparently Julia Gillard's Director of communications.
Over on the ABC's The Drum, Institute of of Public Affairs' Research Fellow Chris Berg is scathing. Rightly so, although Mr Berg really misses the point. He and Mr McTernan are in fact in furious agreement on a key point. Mr McTernan states, and I quote:
The delivery of effective and efficient public services is the hallmark of good government, yet as private sector standards rise there needs to be an equivalent increase in the quality of public service and increasing confidence and respect between the public service and the public.
Chris Berg, too, appears to believe that that the private sector is better managed. They go in different directions from that starting point, but the underlying assumption is there.
I think it absurd to say that private sector management standards have risen. I know of no hard evidence to support this. If anything, the anecdotal evidence suggests that management effectiveness in both public and private sectors has been in decline, and for similar reasons. There is certainly evidence to suggest that certain activities are better managed in the private sector, but this is a question of context and constraints.
If you think about it, the very idea of continuous improvement in management is absurd. Management is a human activity, subject to all the normal human frailties and to the forces of entropy. In many ways, management is like the rat on the treadmill. You have to keep running to stay in the same place! Yes, managers should aim for continuous improvement, we can always do better, but we have to recognise that in an aggregate sense we are all on that treadmill.
I was reminded of this by the latest release of the Australian cabinet documents. For the first time, some of the submissions I wrote are now in the public domain, some have even been digitised! This is the first Belshaw submission and subsequent cabinet decision. You will need to keep clicking to read the whole thing.
Heavy going, isn't it? But this was the start of a process. We were trying to do something new. In many ways we failed, although we had successes such as the abolition of duties on computer imports. But how do you measure our successes and failures?
I suppose that the reasons for failure are instructive, for they illustrate some of the hurdles that must be overcome if you are to bring about real change.
Improvement will not come from aspirational reports such as that by Mr McTernan. They come through the sheer hard grind of thousands of workers trying to fix things now. Within their human limits, people care. They try to do a better job.
The real challenge for any organisation is to find the best way of giving people the freedom they need to do their jobs. That's actually bloody hard, for it conflicts with the command and control mode of modern management.
Given freedom, people will make mistakes. But they will also achieve greet things.
What do you want? Do you want to avoid error, or do you want to achieve success? You can't have the second if you want the first.