Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Musings - Inflation, Volunteering, Child Welfare and Educational Standards

This has, in many ways, been a quite remarkable week for someone like me who likes reading the entrails to get a picture of life and society. Here I can do no more than to give a taste for later discussion.

At national level, the big story has been the forthcoming apology to the stolen generation. This has cascaded down in a variety of ways. While I recognise the historical significance of it all, I have nothing to add beyond previous posts. My thinking has now switched to next steps. I will deal with this once I know how things have gone.

Australia's Reserve Bank is seriously worried about inflation because of continued growth in the Australian economy. You can find the Bank's latest statement on monetary policy here.

I am not sure why there should be surprise, and there is in some quarters, at the Bank's actions in raising official interest rates. The Bank has been saying for a long time that we must save more.

Of far more interest is the way in which market rates are decoupling from official rates. We do live in a market economy, so when the supply and demand for loanable funds gets out of kilter you have to expect private interest rate changes.

In the meantime, the real estate asset bubble continues, as do rises in rents. It may sound hard, but this will continue until the economy contracts.

Dr Healy said the assumption multiculturalism would automatically lead to strong cohesive communities without government assistance may have been naive.

Back last December I started preparing a post on problems Australia was facing in maintaining the volunteer ethos. In essence, the proportion of the population engaging in volunteer activities was the same. However, the average hours involved had shrunk.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald there was a story about a study, by Ernest Healy, senior research fellow at the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, that challenged the notion that ethnic diversity leads to a stronger, more cohesive society. The story said in part:

Migrants from non-English speaking countries are less likely to be volunteers than Australian-born people or migrants from English-speaking nations, a new study shows.

Ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of volunteering - even among their Australian-born residents.

Now this should not have come as a surprise and has absolutely nothing to do with ethnic backgrounds.

Anybody who has been involved with volunteer work would know that you recruit - and all voluntary groups must recruit to survive - from your contact network, those that you come in contact with. Further, in recruiting you also depend upon the local media to tell your story.

Now traditionally country areas have had higher degrees of volunteer participation than metro areas. Country areas tend to be more uniform, have greater social cross-links, as well as a very targeted local media. This makes it easier to involve people.

City people do get involved in volunteer work. You only have to look at local schools or sporting groups. However, these activities tend to be focused around very specific needs and institutions. It is much harder to cross groups to capture a general need.

The presence of distinct ethnic groups living and mixing as groups tends to complicate volunteering because it adds an additional division to overcome. This is not a criticism, simply an observation on social dynamics.

In Sydney, the two dailys have continues their constant drip, drip, drip attacks on the NSW Labor Government. I will talk about one specific case in a moment.

At the moment we have inquiries or reviews going into at least the Department of Community Services, the Health system and the Department of Housing. The volume of inquiries is now, I think, affecting the very business of Government itself.

I used to support the idea of longer periods between elections. I no longer do so. With four year fixed Parliamentary terms in NSW, it will be March 2011 before the next elections. Unless the Government can pull its self together, we face another three years of partial paralysis.

I have a particular interest in the inquiry into the child welfare system from both a historical and public policy perspective. Here, for example. When I look at the material that has emerged so far we can, I think, draw centain tentative conclusions.

The first is the importance of early intervention, action to solve problems before kids enter the child welfare system. This involves an articulated approach integrating actions across agencies. This does already exist to some degree through things like inter-agency joint service agreements, although these tend to be cumbersome in operation. More can be done.

I have just looked at the time. I will need to finish this post tonight.

My thanks to Neil for putting up a post containing more links to stories about the current child welfare problems, as well as some useful comments.

I finished this morning's part of this post with a comment about the need for articulated approaches. I also suggested that such approaches tended to be cumbersome in operation.

Dealing with articulated approaches, first.

From a child welfare perspective, you can think of approaches to the welfare of children in terms of a continuum.

We start with the need to avoid situations that place children in care. This is best achieved by general social mechanisms.

Then we have family situations that might lead to children being placed in care. Here we have a need for early intervention, as well as a need for emergency responses should children be placed at unacceptable risk.

Should children in fact have to be placed in care, we have to have approaches for managing this. We also want kids out of the system as soon as possible.

All this involves a number of agencies. Here we need effective inter-agency integration. This is very hard to achieve. To understand this, you need to understand decision making processes in the NSW Public Service.

In the past, and to a degree still, much is achieved through informal or semi-formal cooperation. However, this is harder today because of institutional factors.

Decision making processes in Government agencies have become institutionalised and formalised. We start with Departmental executives. This cascades down through division or business unit executives. Then there are a range of other decision making bodies.

Each body meets on a regular basis and keeps minutes. Now who could complain about this? The problem is that decision processes have to be fitted into this.

Add to this formalised agreements between Departments. Bodies meet, then recommendations have to go up through two Departmental chains before coming back down for action. Each step in the chain takes time. Each has to take into account different positions.

This whole process takes place in a world of of perormance agreements and performance measurement centred on past specifics. We have agreed in the past that we shall do x measured by y. Obviously people take changing circumastances into account, but you still have to deliver on previous targets.

The net result is slow decision making, combined with slow response times to new developments. Now factor in two further factors.

The first is the current obsession with risk management and risk avoidance. What are the risks with this course, how shall we manage those risks?

Again, at one level there is nothing wrong with this. Pretty obviously, risks have to be taken into account. But decision making, doing, is all about risks. Things will go wrong. Once fear of risk starts distorting decisions, once risk avoidance becomes the central theme, then the chances of doing new things are much reduced.

The second is the need to respond to immediate pressures or problems. Again, systems must adjust to meet immediate needs. But when systems, as has happened in NSW, become driven by immediate needs and political pressures, then we have a problem.

There is a very particular issue here. As a community, we expect problems to be solved even where the problems may be insoluable.

I will finish this post tomorrow.

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