Friday, January 04, 2013

The error fallacy

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.

You will get a feel for the response from these links: here, here, here, here, and here.

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.      


Evan said...

Here's a test give a major company a similar budget to a government department and see what they can do with it. The mixed (to put it kindly) fortunes of PPP's suggest that private corporates are often clueless.

I suspect there may have been improvements in smaller companies but large corporates? I'd like to see some evidence.

Here's how to save millions in consultants fees. Walk in to the workplace and ask people how to improve things - then do what they tell you. People want to do a good job usually and will tell you for free how to help them do this. Large scaled re-organisation will be necessary occasionally perhaps (for wisdom on the implementation the same method is wise I think).

As to the pollies (of both sides!) attitude to the poor; words fail me - well, polite ones anyway.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, Evan. The mixed fortune of PPP's raises some very interesting questions that centre on the value of the concept, as well as the way it works in practice.

There are, I think, some confusions here.

The idea of management by walking about was very popular in the 1980s. There is a short wikipedia piece on it -

Evan said...

The person I'd heard of as the example of MBWA was Walt Disney

Rod said...

Hi Jim,

Have you resolved not to have any public resolutions this year?

As for management generally, I'd like to say that our illustrious leaders seem to think managing is doing. Managing needs to be kept to a minimum because managing can actually stop other people from working.

The extreme nature of OHS and environmental regulation is an example of this. In my view adhering to the legislation is the minimum standard. But what happens when the legislation goes beyond OHS an environmental regulation and instead is all about paper work. We need to complete masses of paper work to demonstrate we are meeting the legislation... it is no longer good enough to meet (or even exceed) it.

I observe this situation in a couple of big consultancies that I've worked for as well as local and state governments.

I'll provide a good local government example:

When testing potable water the testing tap needs to be 'flamed' to kill any bacteria on the end of a tap that might be a source of a false positive. Now, this hot work. So potentially a hot work permit needs to be filled out each time you do this, then you need a second person to watch the site for an hour after you've finished to make sure no fires start. Don't get me started on days where there is a total fire ban.

Of course practically, we need to create written standard work procedures and risk assessments to demonstrate that if you flooded the area with water from the tap before 'flaming' it. The risk is so low it is not worth noting... again this seems not to be enough on days of total fire ban. These risk assessments and procedures need to be signed off before work is done at every site.

Legislation has become too much aligned with recording what you are doing rather than just telling you what you need to be doing.

Shall I tell you about the time I needed to relocate a threatened species plant that was planted by one of my staff before the threatened species legislation came in force? This small thorny bush was next to a disabled foot path and because of the species being listed we needed a permit from National Parks each time we wanted to prune it. It took two years of planning to be able to relocate it!

The examples could go on for as many years as I've been working in NSW.

Yours frustratingly,


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan, he's just one. I had a real pleasure in reading about this approach because it's what I tried to do!

Jim Belshaw said...

Rod, your ending should read yours in frustration!

I have resolved not to make any public resolutions this year, just report on results!

Your examples are fascinating. I will pick them up in a new pots.

I have been enjoying you posts and will also pick them up.

Have a happy new year.

Yours in frustration!


Rod said...

Both are true with me... as usual I failed to proof read my comment. That is what makes me frustrating...

Yours in frustration,


Rummuser said...

It is my experience that, any business to survive successfully, I use the word deliberately, it has to innovate constantly. Innovation not necessarily huge big shifts, but in the delivery of whatever it is offering its customers, be it quality, quantity, place or service. This process can only happen when mistakes are made and the opportunity is taken to take such steps as necessary to not make those mistakes again. It is a never ending process and if one condemns making mistakes, the uniqueness of the enterprise will suffer. Sadly, condemning is easier than treating those as opportunities to innovate.

Jim Belshaw said...

Rod, I too suffer from the proof-reading problem. Try pots instead of post! I must be slightly dyslectic because I don't see transposed letters.

Jim Belshaw said...

You make the point well, Ramana.