Wednesday, December 05, 2007

So much to think and write about - and so little time!

To the degree that I have any strength as a blogger it lies in the fact that I try to provide content. Yet there is so much around of interest to me that I struggle to cover even the tip of it at any any depth at all.

To illustrate with a few very varied examples.

Over on the slowly (very) slowly evolving History of Australian and New Zealand Thought, Rafe put up a post looking at aspects of the Australian Legend. Now this is an area that I would very much like to write something on as a companion piece looking at two very different threads.

The first thread is the changing way in which historians themselves present Australia. I have written a little on this, already, but would very much like to write more.

The second is the changing way in which Australia is presented in literature, film and popular culture.

These are huge topics. However, they can be simplified by focusing on the theme of the Australian Legend itself.

Moving in a very different direction, there has been another child tragedy in New South Wales involving the NSW Department of Community Services and, in this case, also apparently the Department of Housing.

In my discussion on problems in this area I have tried to focus on systemic problems, rather than the detail of the cases. My argument is that we have created an unworkable system.

This argument is part of a broader discussion about longer term trends in public administration, including my post on Mr Rudd and efficiency dividends. Bob Quiggan, a former colleague, responded to this in a comment. Apart from the pleasure of hearing from Bob again, I need to respond to Bob in either an amplified comment or a post, perhaps both.

The nature and extent of systemic failure has been a recurring theme in this broader discussion. If you look at my arguments in the ul-Haque, Hicks, Haneef and AWB (and here) cases you will see that (as in the child welfare case) my core focus has been not on the facts of the case, but the processes involved.

In my discussions on public administration, I also made the point (among others) that changes in public administration are a subset of a broader set of changes at national and international levels. You will find an example here.

I write a lot about changes in Australian society and culture, far too much to even give a representative example. Sometimes this may seem a little old-fashioned. However, it does have a serious purpose.

I am not nostalgic for the past, although I may be nostalgic about elements of the past. I seek to understand what has happened and why. Here one of my recurring concerns - one that also sits at the interface of politics, public administration and public life - has been the way in which (as I see it) Australia has become an increasingly intolerant, harsh, inward looking and risk averse society.

There are many different posts here, exploring different aspects of the problem.

In Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves, I pleaded for the need to cut our politicians, and ourselves, some more slack.

I am out of time. I will continue this post later. In fact, much later!

The post I just referred to was triggered by the attempted suicide of a leading NSW political figure. We then found that he had been suffering from depression.

This post was in part the trigger for a major series of posts on depression. This series focused especially on depression in the workplace and was written from a management perspective, part of my on-going professional aim to try to improve management practices.

But it left open the question in my mind as to the causes of the apparent rapid increase in depression as a medical and social problem.

Now there are all sorts of issues here. One is simply a measurement problem. We now have better statistics, more information. Sometimes an apparent change is in fact no more than a change in record keeping.

A second issue is the way in which we can become or are influenced by what we measure. I have written a fair bit on this in a professional sense because of the impact on management and firm performance. An example with broader implications can be found in my post Problems with Performance Pay.

Then linked to this we have fashion, the way in which particular matters suddenly become a matter of public concern, a concern that then feeds back into society. RSI (Repetition Stress Injury) is a fascinating example here.

RSI suddenly appeared around the mid-eighties as a major work force problem. There were tens of thousands of cases, huge publicity, major changes to working rules to prevent the problem. Then, around ten years later, RSI vanished as a major problem. Did this happen because work place changes had solved the problem, or was it simply a change in society fashions and concerns? Or both? How do we disentangle?

With depression, I am convinced that its rise is connected in part, is a symptom of, changes in society I referred to earlier, the way we have become an increasingly intolerant, harsh, inward looking and risk averse society.

I really struggle with this one because it is an area where I find my own attitudes and instinctive reactions increasingly at variance with apparent social norms.

I am not a libertarian. All societies need need rules to function. Yet the way in which we create and impose rules tells a lot about society.

In October I wrote a post Australia's sad moral decline. The post was meant to be a sarcastic look at certain social changes and controls. I had to hastily insert a preamble to make it clear that I was being sarcastic.

In my previous post, A very odd evening, I talked about the controls and processes adopted at youngest's year 12 formal. Talking to a teacher later, one of Clare's favourites, she said that it was a pity that the few had to spoil it for the many. That's true, but it misses the point.

There have always been problems with the few. Unless one can argue that kids have in some ways got worse, something that I would be reluctant to accept, what has changed is not the problem, but our responses to it. Here I see serious argument in Tasmania that kids should be required to wear school uniform at formals!

These changing attitudes and responses are pervasive and seem to be getting worse. In Risk - lock-out and lock down arrive in Australian schools I talked about the new security arrangements at my daughters' school. These made me uncomfortable, had I thought changed the tone of the school, and certainly did not give me reassurance.

At school level, the kids themselves do try to strike back.

Sometimes they do so simply by finding new and creative ways to break or bend the rules. Here I was struck by the tone of the Head's speech at this week's breaking up, with its heavy emphasis on the need to observe rules.

Sometimes they do so more formally. Here in When its Time to take a Stand I reported on the heartwarming case of a year 5 student at a Sydney school. Following the school's decision to ban running in the playground on safety grounds, she organised a protest that led to running being reinstated.

The focus on rules, risk avoidance and control reduces individual freedom and imposes direct and indirect costs. I commented on some aspects of this earlier in Broken Record - Risk Avoidance and the Burden of Compliance.

At a personal level I resent both the increasing controls and the need to pay for them.

The school's new security features have to be paid for by parents, many of whom are already struggling to meet fees increasing much faster than the rate of inflation.

Excluding all the add-on things, the tickets to the formal cost the family $540. This covered venue, disco machine, a three course meal plus security. I do not know how much the security component was, but given the way in which it was enforced I felt that we got a negative return for it.

One of the difficulties in all this is that the costs of control and compliance are pervasive but not easily seen. The Rudd Government has made regulatory reform, the reduction of the burden and costs of compliance, a key objective. While I welcome this, these costs are just one element in a total cost burden imposed by society attitudes and interlinked Government and media responses.

Take, as an example, the public school that recently tried to hand back a Government grant once it worked out that compliance and reporting costs would exceed the value of the grant. Now it should be possible to actually measure this type of cost.

But how do we measure the cost of more expensive, slower and less effective Government decision making itself?

Resources are limited. As more resources are tied up in compliance activities, fewer resources are available for thinking and doing. As the number of steps and required processes involved in decision making increases, so does the time required to actually get things done. These costs are pervasive, but not easy to measure.

I have written a little, and hope to write a lot more, on change processes at community level and in organisations and society because the topic fascinates me.

In his Scientific Revolution, Kuhn speaks of the way in which scientific paradigms rise, become dominant and then fall in the face of an increasing volume of evidence that cannot be explained by the dominant paradigm. Something similar happens in society. Here my feeling is that our current command and control system is in fact starting to topple under its own weight.

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