Sunday, November 19, 2006

NSW Ten Year Plan - praiseworthy but flawed

I see the NSW Government has been advertising their new Plan on TV.

This post will complete my immediate comments on the Plan. My focus is on what the Plan tells us about the Government's approach to public policy and administration, linking this to some of the things that I have been talking about in previous posts, rather than the detail of the plan itself.

Because I am going to be quite critical, I should mention the positive up front. Whatever the weaknesses of the Plan, and they are many, the Plan provides a structure for evaluating just what the Government has done and proposes to do. It is unusual for any Government to do this, so it deserves praise.

Is it a Plan?

To my mind, the Plan is not a Plan at all. Looking at planning from a management consulting perspective, any plan starts by setting out high level longer term objectives, it looks at the opportunities and challenges facing the organisation if those objectives are to be achieved, then with this as base it sets out what is to be done.

As outlined by Peter Drucker a long time ago, planning is all about the futurity of current decisions. By definition, a plan is about the future. However, the future is set by what we do now. So planning allows us to take the future into account in current decisions.

There is no overarching vision for NSW in this Plan. Perhaps there cannot be.

In my post on the New Zealand model, I talked about the difficulty Government and minsters faced in setting overarching objectives. I also spoke of the difficulties the Government faced in developing new policy approaches when its ideological stance was opposed to certain classes of action. Both problems hold in NSW.

NSW is a large and varied area lacking geographic unity. The commonalities that combine people in NSW are largely national, national economy, national culture. As we drill down from state level, the commonalities vanish.

NSW is very varied. This could be managed by explicitly recognising those variations, by creating a plan based around variation. But the NSW Government cannot do this, it feels that it must set state wide targets.

To the degree that the Plan does recognise diversity, it breaks up into analysis and targets that take Sydney on one side, the rest of the state on the other. While there is considerable diversity within Sydney, it is a unit. "Regional and Rural NSW" is not.

We can see this if you look at my posts on the Plan and New England. In the first post, I attempted to analyse New England's needs to set a base for consideration of the Plan. In the second post, I looked at the detail of the Plan in terms of those needs. My third post summarised my conclusions. My bottom line was that the gap between the Plan and New England's needs was huge.

The Plan's Ideological Stance

The Plan may not be a Plan, but it does bear a strong resemblance to what are called service level agreements.

The concept of a service level agreement comes from business and is applied to commercial arrangements between a purchaser and supplier. These agreements specify what will be supplied and focus on agreed performance standards. This is exactly what the NSW Government has tried to do. In doing so, it has followed the NSW tradition dating back to the Greiner Government and its introduction of elements of the New Zealand model.

On the surface, this seems reasonable. The core role of the State Government is the supply of services to the NSW community, so it's only right that it should specify what is being provided, how performance is to be measured. But here we in fact strike several problems.

The standard service level agreement is a means to an end, the supply of services to be used for a purpose. The performance standards are determined by the purpose to be served.

The problem with the application of this model to NSW is that Government involves two overlapping but distinct groups with different performance interests:
  • there are the clients/customers of the service who benefit from or are affected by the service. They are interested in the impact of the service on them.
  • then there are voters who are in fact the ultimate customer for the services provided.
Performance standards at the client/customer level are relatively easy to set. It is much harder to set performance standards at the voter level.

In the past, Governments attempted to handle this by articulating broad values and policy stances that integrated policy and at least provided a broad framework within which voters could then make judgements depending upon both Government performance and their specific interests.

The problem with the managerialist approach built into the Plan with its emphasis on the citizen as customer and on specific activities or programs and associated targets is that it destroys the broader framework. This actually forces voters to try to make complex judgements by amalgamating their individual responses on a variety of individual programs of varying interest to them into an overall judgement on Government performance. I suppose that we can summarise this by saying that politics has become the sum of the parts rather than a judgement on the whole.

This approach also damages Government itself by forcing it into a reactive mode. In the absence of some over-arching vision, however imperfect, Government end up setting policy by responding in an ad-hoc fashion to constantly shifting customer needs defined by increasingly sophisticated consumer measurement techniques.

Just to illustrate the impact. Is law and order and security, as implied by the Plan since this is the first priority area, the single most important issue facing NSW? I may be wrong, but I very much doubt it.

Education as a Case Study

Just to flesh this out a little further, let's take education and training as a case study.

I would have thought that the critical issues here included:
  1. The overall Government stance to the role of and importance of both education and training
  2. Education and training needs across a large and diverse state
  3. The existing system and the way it is meeting/not meeting those needs
  4. Proposed policy and program approaches to meeting those needs

If we look at the plan, these issues are not addressed. The Plan is defined in terms of a small number of measurable state wide target outcomes largely defined in isolation.

No comments: