Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – public administration, dashboards and pink batts

This morning I started with my normal news round-up. The increasing newspaper restrictions on public unpaid access have really started to hurt. I wish Google would stop indexing those stories from, for example, The Australian where you click and get a message saying you must subscribe if you wish to continue.

The restrictions by other papers to a maximum number of visits in a period is also difficult. These vary from two for the Courier Mail to thirty for the Sydney Morning Herald.  It really bites when I come to do a round-up story. The current Australian Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program is a case in point. Here I wanted to do a more detailed check of reporting to try to determine key facts. To do this, I normally trawl my way back and forwards through reports, often visiting the same story several times. In such cases, I can now quickly exceed my visit limitations.

That’s not always a bad thing, for it forces me to check source documentation when available. However, I do not have research assistants and my personal time is very limited. The restrictions therefore make it harder to do the summary reporting that I like to do. 

In what must first seem like an unrelated segue, yesterday I attended a training course on the writing of ministerial briefs and letters put on by the Institute of Public Administration. My present work colleagues were surprised that I went. After all, I wrote my first ministerial brief a long time ago, most people know that I am a writer, while in the current work context I write a lot of briefs, policy statements, Q&As, communications strategies, risk plans etc. However, I wanted a refresher. I also had specific things I wanted to achieve. 

In official writing whether in the public or private sectors, system, culture and context are critical. Writing itself is a craft. However, system, culture and context determine the way you present your material. They determine what is included, who you write for. Here my own extensive experience can sometimes be an impediment. I have to write just what is required in the way that is required, not what my experience says might be actually best. In management jargon, we call it fitness for purpose.

I am told that we have flatter structures today. As I have said before, I don’t see it.

When I first joined the Commonwealth Public Service, there were three or four reporting or decision levels between me and the Minister. When I first became a Second Division Officer and had direct access to the Minister, a graduate clerk could come to me with a worry, a concern about a program, and have that concern on the Minister’s desk that day or the following morning if I agreed. It didn’t matter how it was expressed; I and the relevant section head would handle that. If necessary, I would consult my Division Head, Secretary or Deputy Secretary before providing advice, but that was my call. If I got it wrong, then I would pay a price.

Today, depending on the circumstances, there are between seven and nine reporting/clearance levels between my recommendation and the minister. Further, as a contractor in a small agency that forms part of one of the new mega agencies, I don’t necessarily understand the rules, relationships and contexts that dictate what is acceptable or, even, what is done and why it’s done. My experience allows me to form views, to make guesses, but I don’t know. Mostly I’m right, but it is a battle.

This was my reason for doing the course. I wanted to be more effective in my current role, and that required me to fit in, to learn the acceptable way of doing things. As it happened, I learned far more than this.

The course was run by Dennise Harries. In listening to her, I responded at multiple levels.

As part of my tool-kit I am a professional trainer, so I watched her technique. That got a tick. As presently part of an agency and someone who cares about my colleagues (they are nice people) and knows their frustrations, I was watching to see if the training was practical, if it would help them do their jobs. That got a tick too, although as one said outside during a cigarette break, I wish my manager would do this course. One of the standard problems with this type of training is that you learn, become enthusiastic and then go back to an unchanged work environment. You then feel, what’s the point?

Speaking professionally, there was actually some good stuff here, simple techniques that would work independent of the immediate work context. Again speaking professionally, I started wondering how one might best embed this. Training is learning by doing, so you must have follow up practice.

  At the start of the course, I wrote down my objectives for the day. They were simple. They did not include training skills, nor the extent to which the course might deliver simple practical outcomes in writing terms. What I wanted to know was how to write more effectively in an environment that I did not properly understand, that sometimes frustrated me. I did find the course helpful in this regard.

As I listened, I thought of the on-going ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) inquiries in NSW and the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program, Both reflect failures in public administration. Both reflect the systemic complexity that has been created. In both cases, the outcome is likely to be more complexity, more rules.

For those who are interested, you can find a copy of Mr Rudd’s statement to the Royal Commission here. The Commission web site includes full transcripts of the hearings, as well as the evidence provided. The release of Mr Rudd’s full statement was delayed by issues of Cabinet confidentiality, something I wrote about in February: The principle of Cabinet confidentiality. A truck has now been driven through that principle, something the current Government and indeed future Governments may come to regret.

The Royal Commission centres on the question of who was responsible for what, who told what what, who should have told what what. A lot of whats I know, but this Commission is all about who and whats!

I have only skimmed the material, but several things stand out. The first is that there seems to have been no clear chain of command, the second the sheer complexity of it all.

Let me introduce you to the concept of the dashboard. No, not the car dashboard, but the management information systems dashboard. As organisations become larger and more complex, it becomes harder and harder for those at the top of the chain to know what is going on. Pressed for time in a 24/7 world, awash with information and electronic chatter, they need devices that will simplify, that will present key information in an easily absorbable fashion. Hence the dashboard.

In the case of the Home Insulation program, Mr Rudd referred on a number of occasions to the way that reports going to Cabinet on this program, reports that were part of the overall stimulus reports, were coded green meaning no problems. “We didn’t know”, said Mr Rudd. Then, when the problems were identified, the shock reaction was to cancel the program, imposing a new and different set of costs on those who had become involved.

Now go to the bottom of the chain. There is a long, long, distance between the bottom of the chain and the dashboard on which Cabinet seems to have relied. Each link is under pressure. Each has to make a judgement on what to report in the midst of doing, a report determined not so much by what is important in a practical sense but by the things that have been specified as important.

This is the command and control world of the modern organisation. Is it any wonder that Cabinet’s dashboard failed?

In theory, responsibility should be pushed down to the lowest accountable level. This has risks, but does give the best results overall. In practice, things don’t work like this.

I am. I suppose, in a somewhat unusual position. I have worked towards or at the top of the food chain. Now, for personal reasons including the desire to make writing central, I am towards the bottom. However, I have lost neither the knowledge or skills that I previously possessed, nor have I lost my passion for improvement. I am just seeing things in a different way. It’s made me something of a campaigner.

I have enormous sympathy for the public servants caught up in this inquiry. To my mind, they did a  pretty good job under very difficult circumstances. I suspect they worked very long hours at all levels. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." There is some truth in that.


Anonymous said...

Jim, on restricted access to The Australian - try these steps:

1) On this mornings Aus the first article is "Welfare leaders back GST reform"

2) In your browser (mine is Firefox) hit CTRL-Shift-P to open up a "private browsing window.

3) bring up Google - I assume you have this book-marked

4) Enter as search text the headline (as for instance noted in 1 above

5) X the grey 'premium content' notice.

6) The article is there in full - proof - the 6th para reads Mr Howard said this week he was “absolutely certain we will be debating the character of the GST in the not too distant ­future”.

Takes maybe 3 seconds with practice.

ps I will come back to your "batty" observations a little later.

Anonymous said...

Geez, that was badly composed! Am in a hurry to get a real life this a.m.

4) should be appended with", then click on the appropriate returned search result"

And here's a bucket of "s )s and .s missing from my typing - at no extra charge :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. Have to take Clare to hockey and have also promised her roast pork, so I need to get going! Will try later today.

Anonymous said...


Now to your commentary on the Home Insulation RC:

1) If you review the terms of reference I believe it fair to say that the primary concerns nominated for review are regard for workplace health and safety, financial and emotional loss arising from the associated fires and deaths, and the effect upon pre-existing HI businesses.

2) On fires, it would appear that the industry average in fact decreased from 1.31 fires per 1000 installs to 0.16 per 1000. Or, put another way, prior to the program there was a history of 1 fire for every 765 installs - compared to 1 fire for every 6158 install. I find that quite remarkable.

3) On deaths, the Queensland Coroner reported the first death could be sheeted home to lack of training, supervision, and the use of metal staples on foil insulation. The second death by electrocution (again by metal staples thru foil) occurred despite proper training, and provision of plastic stapling
which for some reason was not used by the installer. The third death by electrocution occurred whilst installing batts not foil, and was caused by an earlier tradesman unwittingly making a metal batten 'live'.

With the possible exception of the first death, and maybe the fourth NSW death, I find it hard to see how these can be the result of anything done, or not done, by any part of the Public Service chain - right up to Cabinet.

Nevertheless, if that is where blame lies, I would expect in all fairness that if this current budget is passed in toto, Cabinet will assume full responsibility for any adverse events arising from same. I am thinking here particularly of youth suicide, crime associated with unemployment, and drug use or other unsafe behavior.

The Public Service should be applauded for quickly rolling out the HIP; it could be chastised for the process of payment verification. It is a very long bow to suggest the Cabinet and particularly the PM be held personally responsible for the deaths, the fires; perhaps the inadequate administration - but even then only a "buck stops here" basis.

Just my tuppence.




Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for this, kvd. We did canvas some of these issues at the time, but this is a useful reminder. It doesn't affect the cabinet confidentiality point, but may affect the thrust or at least the weighting attached to the points I made.

Anonymous said...

Fair comment Jim. If you will allow a curt comment from a grumpy old man, I would suggest there is far too much emphasis upon "what went wrong?" as compared to "without which, where would we have been?".

I can't find in any of this an acknowledgement of what I would naively term the "success" of a program rolled out very quickly, for great immediate national benefit, and with ongoing payback via reduced electricity demand.

And I thought Mr Abbott's "sh-t happens" comment was entirely unexceptional, despite the furore. I thought his reaction to 'pink batts' (and school buildings for that matter) was extreme hypocrisy.

I am just very tired of the endless manufactured angst from both sides.


Jim Belshaw said...

We are equally grumpy in this case, kvd, and for very similar reasons. Disentangling.

I think Mr Aboot's reaction was arguably hypocritical.In any case, it was way over the top. It created a precedent that is likely to come back to haunt, and it adds to the difficulty in actually reforming public administration.

You may well be right in your comments on the success of the program. I will be interested to see just how the Commission goes on this point, given its terms of reference.

There is an issue about the failure to flag the first death. Why did this happen? In normal practice, that should have happened. However, some of the channels were broken.

It will be interesting to see what conclusion the Commission comes to on cancellation.Was it as its seems to me just a panic reaction? It imposed costs.