Wednesday, November 29, 2006

AWB, Cole and the Failure in Australian Public Administration

Lexcen wrote:

The report on the AWB is out. In all the hoo ha that will erupt, I think what
will be missed is the fact that AWB was a government department to begin with.
Nobody doubts that the AWB bribed Saddam Hussein whilst Australia was war with Iraq. And my point is that nobody will question the governments' foresight to
privatize the AWB upon discovering the extent of the corruption involved.

Neil commented on the very careful way I qualified my English in my previous story on the Cole Royal Commission outcomes. I do write carefully because my purpose is to try to understand, to explain what might have happened, to look at the lessons. In doing so I am going to make mistakes in regard to fact and interpretation. I also try to remember that there are people on the other side of the desk.

I have now skimmed the Cole Report.

While I found the Report frustrating because Mr Cole did not directly address the questions I am interested in, the material makes me glad that I did exercise care, for my views have shifted. You can see this in the change of term in the header, from Public Service Failure to a Failure in Australian Public Administration.

I indicated in my first post on the issue that the thing that had puzzled and also concerned me most about the AWB scandal was the failure of the Public Service to identify the problem and then advise Government. I suggested various possible reasons for this, ending by suggesting that key issue to me was the extent to which the whole affair has revealed systemic weaknesses in our system of public administration and, if so, what we might do about it.

I found Cole both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating in that his focus meant that he did not address the questions I am interested in except in a peripheral fashion. Fascinating because it reads like a plot for a novel, fascinating because of what it does tell us albeit indirectly about the nature of the systemic weaknesses in our system of public administration.

I quoted Lexcen at the top of the page. I think that what he says is actually a bit muddled, but he has captured an important point.

In July 1999, the Wheat Board moved from a Government owned statutory authority (it was never a Government Department) to a grower owned corporation, listing as a public company in 2001. This transition had been in planning for some time.

While the corporatisation/privatisation approach was part and parcel of the Government approach I have talked about before, the grant of a statutory monopoly, the single desk, to a private corporation was unusual.

If I understand the chronology correctly, the first demand from the Iraqi Government for kickbacks occurred in June 1999, the month before the final transition. So the development of the Wheat Board response to this began while the Board was still formally a Government owned body and was completed in the period immediately after privatisation.

In this sense the response would indeed appear in some ways the creature of the culture that had evolved in the Board especially in the period leading up to privatisation. However, this is not to my mind the real point except to the degree that it bears upon the way that corporatisation and privatisation affect organisational cultures. I do not think that the Wheat Board is Robinson Crusoe if we look at the behaviour patterns corporatised entities, although it may be a particularly bad example.

To my mind, the real point is what the chain of events from the decision to corporatise through to the present time tells us about the way our present system of public administration works.

I shudder a little at trying to write this because of the size of the task, but I might have a go at parts simply because it is such an interesting as well as important story. We will see.

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