Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu - Managerialism and systemic failure

Driving to work this morning, I was thinking that I should follow up my post Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu with a post on some of the methodological underpinnings that triggered the post. Then in a comment on that post, Kymbos asked:

When you say that the "supporting systems are simply not there to support the level of activity proposed", what do you mean exactly?

Can you elaborate on what you mean by the managerial approach?

These are fair questions. In fact, they are wonderful questions because Kymbos is asking me to explain myself. So I thought that I might answer them, beginning with the second question since this links to the first. The views that follow are of course partial. Do feel free to correct me.

Managerial Approaches

This, often referred to as managerialism., refers to the transfer into the public sector of ideas drawn from the private sector and from management writers. Some of the key features of this approach are:

  1. The requirement that all agencies including Departments of State have their own plans and objectives.
  2. The replacement of Departmental Secretaries by CEOs and senior executives on performance contracts.
  3. The substitution of the word "policies" by "strategies".
  4. Hierarchical approaches with centralised controls.
  5. An emphasis on Governance, risk management and risk avoidance.
  6. An emphasis on what can be measured at organisational, strategy and individual level, reinforced by cascading performance agreements.

Without debating details, the overall effects have been quite pernicious. The problem lies not so much in the techniques and philosophies themselves, they all have a place, but in their wholesale application independent of circumstance.

A week back on a plane I was sitting by a new Canberra staffer. We got chatting about the early days of the Hawke Government. It was a social conversation, so I did not get too serious. I did make one serious suggestion, although I am not sure that he understood.

I said that if you want new ideas and initiatives from your Department, look at its information structures. If you find that advice to the Office and Minister have to go through a complicated hierarchical decision process, then you are in trouble.

I gave as an example a NSW agency where each piece of paper going to the minister required a formal four level clearance, assuming of course that it did not require consideration by Divisional or Departmental Executive.

I contrasted this with my role as an SES level two with direct reporting. If one of my junior staff came up with an idea, then it required vetting by the section head and then me. From there it went straight to the minister.

Of course there were rules about clearances. But so long as I did not stuff up, I had great freedom. If I needed to get clearance, I had a chat with my Division head, Deputy Secretary or Secretary.

There were no formal rules in the name of Governance requiring me to prepare briefing papers for consideration by Governance bodies at various levels. I just did.

Today we can go through 32 drafts of a piece of paper before it even gets to the Minister or his office. Compare this to just twenty four hours, I have a case in mind, between an idea of a junior staff member and a change in direction of Government policy. This was a special case, but it makes the point.

In talking to the ministerial staffer, I could point to a way of diagnosing a problem. But I really could not give him a solution, beyond suggesting that if the type of problem that I was talking about existed, he needed to build his own contact base in the Department in order to work round the problem.

I suppose that I could have given him a broader solution, but that would really require direct ministerial action. I do not see that happening.

I will continue this post briefly in the morning if I can, dealing with Kymbos' second question.

Weaknesses in Supporting Systems

As I write, Mr Rudd has been talking about restoration of the Westminster System with its tradition of public service independence. This is one of the steps required to move our administrative systems in new directions.

There has also been public recognition of the load placed upon our Commonwealth Public Servants as they struggle to deliver the new Government's agenda. This links directly to the point I was making when I said that the supporting systems were simply not there to support the level of activity proposed.

We can think of the challenge here along three dimensions, people, information and decision processes.

To do things, you need people with the knowledge and skills required to help develop and then implement the ideas. The CPS is a very large organisation. It has lots of people. Yet, in reality, the number of people available to do new things can be quite small.

The CPS operates across a vast span of activities. Further, most people are tied up in doing existing things. So when you drill down in any portfolio looking for the people doing the actual work on a topic, the large numbers drop away to a branch, a section, or even a few key individuals. Go sideways into other agencies including the central coordinating agencies with an interest in the topic and you will find the same pattern.

We need to remember this when we think about the range of new things that the Government is trying to do. These can be thought of as a huge inverted pyramid whose pointy end bears down on just a few people. Make the pyramid, the range of activities, too large and the weight can become crushing.

Information is the second challenge.

Policy development is not an abstract art. Those involved in the development and doing require access to information to guide their thinking. Again, we are used to thinking of the Commonwealth with its huge information systems, its data matching capacity and its various research bodies as information rich. The reality can be very different.

Problem one lies in the fact that much data is at an aggregated level, lacking the detail required so support policy development targeting a specific issue.

Problem two lies in the data sets, the definitions used in collecting and presenting data. These reflect past needs. New policy development generally requires new ways of looking at things. Past data sets may not provide the information required to ask and answer new questions.

Problem three lies in the inability of information systems to interact with each other. This is usually thought of in IT terms. In fact, the biggest problem in cross-topic or cross-agency work often lies in differences in data sets between agencies linked to the original purpose for which the data was collected.

All this may sound a bit abstract. However, to illustrate my point, take the previous Government's Northern Territory intervention.

My understanding is that this really struggled to get underway because neither the people with the required skills nor the required information were readily available.

Decision processes is the third challenge. I dealt a little with this in my discussions under managerialism. Since I wrote that section, I received an email from Bob Quiggin, an old colleague of mine. I quote:

Changing the subject entirely, I also wanted to comment to you about governance. I think the point that many miss, especially the top echelons of today’s public service, is that true governance requires decentralisation of power, not only flatter structures. The more bits you control, the less you can be aware of anything except the broadest outlines. And the devil, for governance, is in the detail.

Bob is right to my mind.

Each decision point from Cabinet down can be thought of as a choke point. The increasing centralisation of power and decision making once led me to liken Cabinet to a constricted pipe down which was forced an ever increasing volume of water. And very dirty water too, a senior colleague dryly remarked!

With increased centralisation of the system, new ideas have to get through an increased number of choke points. Each requires preparation and refinement of briefing papers. Each requires time to get things on agendas for scheduled meetings, while the now very busy people involved have to find the time to seriously consider the issues raised.

The problem is most acute where different jurisdictions are involved. One side-effect of the expansion of Commonwealth activity, control and power has been a rapid widening of such areas.

The COAG (Council of Australian Governments) process is, by its very nature, complex.

From the ministerial councils, the structure cascades downwards through supporting high level administrative committees to supporting committees, sub-committees and working groups.

Whether the Commonwealth should in fact be involved in all the things it is, I would argue not, is a different story. The Commonwealth is, and must therefore take the COAG system into account. Now here we have a whole hierarchy of COAG processes, matched by a hierarchy of decision processes in each jurisdiction that must also be involved. Is it any wonder that it takes so much time to get things done?


If you look at both managerialism and the nature of weaknesses in all the supporting systems, you will see why I am concerned that the sheer breadth of the things that Mr Rudd wants to do is likely to out-run the capacity of the system to deliver.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu

I am clearly really out of touch for I fear that Mr Rudd has inspired in me this awful and bizarre sense of deja vu. Wikipedia speaks of deja vu this way:

The experience of déjà vu is usually accompanied by a compelling sense of familiarity, and also a sense of "eeriness", "strangeness", or "weirdness". The "previous" experience is most frequently attributed to a dream, although in some cases there is a firm sense that the experience "genuinely happened" in the past.

This is not the first time this has happened. I used the phrase in an earlier post, The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends, Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs. Now its much worse. But how to explain? Where do I begin?

I suppose the logical starting point is the obvious one, the way symbolic topics from the Keating era are back on the agenda. This has in fact reached the point that Mercurius in Culture War II: blitzkrieg on Lavartus Prodeo felt obliged to express not entirely tongue-in-cheek sympathy for those on the other side! Listening and reading, I do find myself back in 1994.

This is the obvious one, but it goes far beyond this.

Turning on the radio this morning on the way to work, I learned of the seventy per cent increase in the excise on so-called alcho-pops as the next part of the campaign against so-called binge drinking.

Now as someone with 18 and 20 year old daughters who is a reasonably close observer of of the Sydney young scene, I would agree that certain types of binge drinking are a problem. I would also agree that the particular drinks in question, and Australia is reputedly the largest per capita consumer of these drinks in the world, do play a role in introducing young people, mainly girls, to drinking. But neither the excise increase, nor the other proposed moves intended to address the binge drinking issue, actually address the underlying causes.

As someone who has spent a fair bit of the last few years campaigning against what I see as the combination of growing Australian social conservatism with increasing authoritarian trends in Government, the two are linked, I am hard pressed to see any difference between Mr Howard and Mr Rudd's approach to the nanny state.

But wait, there is more!

Mr Rudd is, am I am, a creature of his time.

Born in 1957, he joined the ALP in 1972 at the age of 15. Many of his symbolic views reflect the views of this period.

His views on public policy and public administration were really formed later.

He joined the Commonwealth Public Service around 1981, rising to Senior Executive Service status in 1988 through the Department of Foreign Affairs. From there he went to become Chief of Staff for Wayne Goss, later driving change in the public sector after Mr Goss became Premier in 1989.

All this means that Mr Goss grew to and then exercised positions of power during the period managerialist approaches became entrenched in the Public Service. This is reflected in his language and approach. He is a creature of this period.

My sense of deja vu here comes from the fact that I know the code, have heard it before. I, too, supported those approaches to some degree, but have come through to a strongly opposing position. Managerialism has failed. Now when I listen to Mr Rudd, I am driven back into the past.

In all this, I accept that Mr Rudd has a genuine social compassion and a desire to drive change. Yet here I come to another problem, one that completes the sense of deja vu. I do not see how he can deliver!

The key difficulty is one that I have seen many times, the fact that the supporting systems are simply not there to support the level of activity proposed.

Maybe I am wrong in all this. But for the moment I am struggling with symbols that I often disagree with, with a socially conservative and authoritarian approach that I generally disagree with, and with an approach to public policy that I feel is wrong.

The irony in all this is that some of my own views were formed during the first period of the Hawke Government. I was hoping that Mr Rudd would have the same liberating effect. And now I really doubt it.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Belshaw sans words

In Recent Belshaw blog posts as at 25 April 2008 I mentioned that I had been reviewing my blogs. The first outcome may seem a retrograde step, the establishment of a new blog!

I have always been inspired by Gordon Smith's lookANDsee, a wonderful photo blog focused on the New England Tablelands. Then that perfidious chap Neil Whitfield established Floating Life Sans Words. I say perfidious advisedly because of the influence he sometimes has on me! While Neil's blog had only a short life before being rolled into Ninglun's Specials, I liked the idea.

All this led me to think about establishing a blog focused on some of the visual material I have found that is now spread over many places, accompanied by short explanations. So I established Belshaw sans words, a direct pinch from Neil of course.

I started with two very different photos from two recent stories, and then started a post on a completely different topic again. At that point I said to myself, hang on a bit. Sure this might show my varied interests, but what (to use management jargon) is the real value added?

Most of the photos I use come from other sources, although I do hope to post more of my own. I do do some research and add words to set a context, that's additional value because it gives the photo greater meaning, but the value would be far greater still to me and others if the posts built to a more integrated story over time.

As you might expect given my interests, I am using the broader New England as one core integrating theme. However, I then decided that it might be sensible to do posts in series so that someone looking at the front page would see a changing coherence. This would also help those searching on labels by creating content more quickly. I suppose that what I really have mind is the hope that themed posts might become a visual essay.

To try to illustrate, take the story of the Chinese in New England. Their story is a subset of New England history, of the broader story of the Chinese in Australia and indeed of the overall story of the Chinese diaspora. I haven't added them up, but I must have written at least half a dozen stories linked in some ways to the Chinese in New England.

The story of New England's Chinese community is not well known, squeezed as it between the very local and the broader state or national stuff with its metro focus. So a series there might be of interest.

In saying this, I am not saying that Belshaw sans words should become another history blog, nor that it should duplicate my existing blogs. Rather, that it provides an opportunity to present and integrate material drawn from my other work in new ways.

One problem that I have become very conscious of in reviewing past material is the ephemeral nature of so much web material. Like most serious bloggers, I try to give attribution and to provide links to sources and supporting material. Far too often, links go dead because people have died or simply lost interest. Also far too often, the search engine algorithms do not allow exact replication of past searches, making it hard to re-find material.

The Australian National Library's Pandora Project is part of an international project to create a web archive. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the web means that the NL has to select.

My problem is that many of the things that I am especially interested in such as individual stories do not make it through through the selection process. This holds even in our immediate blogging world, where most of us exist on Pandora as patchy snapshots derived from references or links on other sites followed through by Pandora robots.

In the short term, I have begun the practice (as I did with some of Neil's mother's material) of replicating more material on my sites as a second record. In the longer term, I hope that at least some of the more active sites I know will finally get selected by Pandora. As an example, it would be a tragedy from my perspective if some of Neil's material were to be lost for any reason.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - the importance of geography

This photo from the NSW State Records Office shows sheep being driven on a property near Armidale.

It may seem hard to believe, but my life is not totally dominated by things such as the success or otherwise of Mr Rudd's 2020 summit. I do think about other things, geography for example.

In an article in On Line Opinion, Australia needs a geographic revolution (22 April 2008), Brad Ruling argued the case for a greater focus on geography, starting at primary school.

I read Brad's article at two levels.

At one level, it is a piece that very much reflects current concerns in terms of the way he posed questions and suggested topics. Here I disagreed with him.

When I did geography at primary and secondary school including geography honours, it was not just about maps and boring facts, although I guess that it could have become that later. I also do not accept that geography is just about interaction between humans and their environment, although I found this most interesting at school. One of the reasons I found first year geography at University so boring lay in its focus on physical geography. Finally, I do not think that geography should be dominated by issues such as sustainability and climate change, important though these issues may be.

At this first level I could have, had I so wished, subjected Brad's writing to forensic analysis. However, while this might have been satisfying in some ways in terms of the bees in my own bonnet, to use an old English phrase, it would also have missed a key point: I actually agree with his core thesis about the importance of geography.

I have the strong impression that younger Australians are geographically illiterate. I stand to be corrected here. My view is based on the groups that I know best, Sydney middle class kids plus older Gen Y and Xs, again with a Sydney middle class bias.

These are one of the most, if not the most, internationally travelled groups in Australia's history. Yet their knowledge of geography, Australian geography in particular, appears like a thing of shreds and patches, lacking breadth and integration.

This week I have returned to one of my long-standing interests, the way in which our view of the world is formed by the interaction between us and our immediate environment. One focus has been the impact of travel time.

In How fast do horses travel?, a post that I began some time ago but have just brought up, I look at travel speeds by foot and horse.

One trigger here were some very interesting posts from Neil reproducing material written by his mother. You will find the posts here:

By way of background, Neil's grandfather, Roy Christison, began his career as a pupil teacher at Croydon Park Public School in 1902. Upon completion of his training , he was posted to Spencer on the Hawkesbury River and then in the early days of the war to Felled Timber Creek near Gunning.

From 1916 to 1923 he taught at Braefield, a locality just over six kilometres south of Quirindi on what is now the Kamilaroi Highway. From there he was posted to Dunolly, near Singleton in the Hunter Valley and then to Milton and then Shellharbour — where Neil's mother and father met — and finally to Caringbah in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, whence he retired in the late 1940s.

Jean Whitfield's reminiscences provide a fascinating insight into a now vanished country Australia. This was a world in which transport was still dominated by foot, horse and train. It was also a world in which education was limited but central.

Like so many teachers at the time, Mr Christison had to pursue his career by what we would now call distance education.

Just as with my father in New Zealand a little later when he was teaching at a one teacher school north of Auckland and doing his two masters' degrees, study material came in by train. To attend classes or exams involved a train trip.

Not all trains stopped at the Braefield siding, so Mr Christison used to walk the four miles to Quirindi to catch the train south, returning late in the evening. I suspect that Mr Christison was vey fit. Even so, we are looking at an hour to an hour and a half's walk. Then as the train went south past Braefield, he would signal to the family that he was okay.

As with so many rural communities, the school was one of the centres of communal activity in Braefield. Again, families came by foot and horse. This, as with the car today, imposed a natural geographical limit on attendance.

Walking, a horse can average around 4 miles an hours ( 6.4km/h). Trotting, a horse averages about 8 mph (13 km/h). Then time has to be allowed to saddle or un-saddle, harness or unharness. Not everybody could afford a horse. Such people walked.

All this affected the pattern of life in ways that are hard for us to understand unless we actually go through the mental process of trying to think what it would be like to do it. As a simple example, social interaction was less, but more intense when it did occur. The immediate geographic world was far smaller, but also bigger because it was in many ways better known.

Today the immediate nexus between life and geography has become attenuated in wealthy western countries. To a degree, we now live in a world independent of geography. Yet geography remains important. And that, I think, is the nub of Brad Ruling's argument.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Recent Belshaw blog posts as at 25 April 2008

This post records posts on my various blogs since April 1 2008.

Since my last post in this series I have continued mulling over the structure of my blogs, taking into account my difficulties in maintaining regular posting. Since then I think that Neil has changed his blog structure at least two times!

I think that I know what I want to do. But I am going to spend this weekend catching up on back posts before coming to a decision.

Turning to my recent posts, it remains the case yet once again that if you look will see that some of the dates are much earlier. All posts have in fact been brought on-line since. I am continuing to catch up. The most recent post is first, working through to the oldest post.

Personal Reflections

New England Australia

New England's History

Regional Living Australia

Torch Relays and Tolerance - a postscript

This photo by Gordon Smith shows Brown Street, Armidale, looking east. I understand that the autumn colours have been absolutely beautiful this year.

I wasn't completely satisfied with my last post, Torch Relays and Tolerance, because I felt that the ideas were just too mixed.

I finished the post with a plea for tolerance. By tolerance, I did not mean the often wishy-washy version that holds in Australia that says that difference should be accepted so long as it falls within commonly accepted bounds, but the far more robust concept that says that we should seek to understand and allow for difference even when we fundamentally disagree.

Tolerance is, however, always a qualified concept with its own built-in tensions.

Part of the reason why so many commentators, including our fellow bloggers, struggled with the events associated with the Canberra torch relay is that it exposed those tensions. As an example, I heard a very uncomfortable Barry Cassidy (an ABC TV journalist) attempt to mount an apologia of the actions of the Chinese protestors, arguing that the protesters were Australian Chinese and entitled to their view, that nothing much had really happened.

Without bogging down, I want to tease out the conflicts a little more.

There seems little doubt that the Chinese Embassy effectively organised large numbers of younger Chinese and especially students to come to Canberra. Listening to the radio on the morning of the relay I was struck by reports of the huge volume of bus traffic heading into Canberra.

This raises two very different issues.

The first is the right of the Embassy to do this. Here I do have reservations, although I accept that this is a matter of degree. The second is the extent to which Chinese students studying in Australia should be allowed to participate in protests. Here I have no doubts. They should be allowed to do so.

The next conflict is that between Tibet, a popular cause, and the expression of Chinese pride and nationalism, an unpopular cause given Australian perceptions of the oppressive and coercive practices still employed by the Chinese regime. There was almost a sense of shock among some commentators that the alternative pro-Chinese view should have been able to organise itself so effectively.

This is where my argument about a more robust view of tolerance comes in. We need to distinguish between the actions of the Chinese Government on Tibet and the understandable need of many Chinese to express national pride. However, here we have another problem, the belief among many Australians that our Chinese citizens should give up their past and accept Australian norms.

This is a slippery one indeed, for it creates a divide that runs across the political spectrum.

Multiculturalists tend to believe that new Australians can maintain beliefs and customs so long as they do not breach the norms that they, the multiculturalists, believe to be correct. Integrationists tend to believe that new Australians should accept core Australian values, however defined, but can otherwise retain traditional beliefs and customs.

In practice, I am not sure how much difference there is between the two schools. My own starting point is that so long as people obey the law, they should be able to believe and say what they want. However, this raises another issue, the role of the law.

In an article in On Line Opinion Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, said:

Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth. Australians speak some 364 languages, of which 170 are Indigenous languages. Between 1996 and 1998, 52 per cent of marriages in Australia were “mixed” in the sense that they involved people from different countries of origin. Forty-three per cent of Australians have one or both parents who were born overseas.

I think that this is a pretty fair description of modern Australia. However, Mr Calma then went on to argue for an extension of Australia's anti-discrimination laws, citing overseas trends especially in laws relating to religious vilification to suggest that Australia was falling behind.

I cannot agree with Mr Calma's arguments. Just because certain countries are introducing new laws and controls does not automatically mean that those actions are relevant to Australia. I would go further in that my view is that anti-discrimination laws have in fact become a device for enforcing certain social mores, in so doing blocking off alternative views.

Do not get me wrong on this. I actually support anti-discrimination laws. I just feel that their expanding scope is creating new sets of problems, substituting legal remedies for issues that should be resolved through public discourse.

Enough for the present.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Torch Relays and Tolerance

Photo: Pro-Tibet supporter is blocked by pro-Chinese supporters. Olympic Torch Relay, Canberra. ABC/Reuters.

I am sure that tonight's TV news will be full of the Torch Relay and associated demonstrations. I notice also that the ABC blog attracted comments to the point that they stopped comments.

In discussing the Torch Relay I do not want to get caught in a discussion of the facts. I was not there, and do not know. I do know the way that the event is being covered, including the Sydney Daily Telegraph's Chinese mobs in ACT relay riot.

Leaving all this aside, I want to make just three points, points that I have made before.

To my knowledge, this is the first time that I have seen a popular Australian cause, and Tibet is popular, simply out massed through the organisation of a single ethnic group with a different view. This has caused some agonising in the blogosphere because people are not quite sure how to handle it. I guess my comment is get used to it, because it is likely to happen again.

My second point is that none should assume that their views, however self-evidently right they may appear, will carry the day. I have seen many of my own views simply overtaken by time. I see no reason why this should be different in the future. We simply do not know what Australia's value framework will look like in ten year's time.

I must admit to a degree of frustration here. I have always mixed fairly widely across areas and groups, giving me a feel for different positions. In this more complex modern Australia, I no longer feel that I know what people think and feel. I am too Sydney inner west, metro or eastern suburbs bound.

Accepting this, my feeling is that many recent migrant groups are far more conservative than people realise. It's complex, because many do not want to talk about things in an environment where the dominant views are different from the things they actually believe in. I find that I have to coax out views in private, getting people to talk.

This brings me to my third and final point.

We talk a lot about tolerance in modern Australia. Yet we live in a fairly intolerant society. If we are really to embrace tolerance, and I think that this is very important, then we have to learn to listen to very different views and at least understand the position those people are coming from.


Ninglun (Neil) had an interesting update post on this issue.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


It's raining again as I write. Not heavily, just persistent drizzle.This makes the eleventh day in a row in Sydney with at least some rain, the longest wet period in seventy seven years, and I am sick of it.

I don't think that I would mind so much if it belted down, but this variable stuff is hard to manage. If you don't carry a rain coat or umbrella all the time, you are likely to get drenched in an irregular shower.

Despite the rain we have had, 42.9 per cent of NSW is still in drought, another 11.5 per cent is classified as marginal. The drought areas are concentrated in the far west and south west of the state, and include most of the NSW portion of the Murray River Basin.

The rainfall outlook released by the Bureau of Metereology for the period May to July suggests that the conditions that have given Australia its recent rain are weakening.

The chances of exceeding the median rainfall over May to July are between 60 and 70 per cent in a broad band covering far northern WA, most of the NT, northwest and southern Queensland, and the far north of NSW. Over the rest of the country, the chances of exceeding the three-month median rainfall are mainly between 45 and 60 per cent. So the chances of being wetter than normal are about the same as the chances of being drier.

With the easing of the drought, some of the heat has gone out of the national discussion on water. The fairly insane notion that we should phase back agriculture, a notion that surfaced in the metro media as drought conditions hit the cities, seems to have dropped away. It is hard to argue this at a time of global food shortages and rising food prices.

While some of the heat has gone out of national discussion, debate continues below the main media horizons. Argument now appears to centre on ways of managing climatic variability. Some of the ideas, such as ownership of multiple properties in different climatic areas in order to spread risk, are old, but none the worse for that.

There have been enormous changes in Australian agriculture over the last forty years, changes that I am at best only partially aware of. Some of the capital intensive water harvesting techniques, techniques designed to manage on farm water over extensive periods, are quite remarkable from my perspective.

At some stage I think that it would be really interesting to simply drive north from river valley to river valley along the western slopes through New England into Queensland, just to see what has been happening on the ground.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

GetUp, the 2020 summit and the concept of participation

I had not focused on the role of GetUp in Mr Rudd's 2020 summit until I saw a snippet of an interview with its Executive Director Brett Sullivan apparently claiming a degree of success for summit outcomes and especially the push for a republic. This came straight after a news story that in a vote on the republic issue, delegates voted 98 in favour, one against (a Liberal Party parliamentarian) with one abstention (a former Governor General who did not feel it appropriate to vote).

According to the organisation's web site:

GetUp.org.au is a new independent political movement to build a progressive Australia. GetUp! brings together like-minded people who want to bring participation back into our democracy.

When GetUp first formed, I thought that it was a genuine attempt to harness the power of the web to bring a broader degree of popular participation to the democratic process. It is not.

The inherent problem lies in the conjunction of the words "progressive", "like-minded" and "participation".

"Progressive" is code for left of centre. The first time I noticed the use of this particular code word was back in the past when the Communist Party talked about marshaling the progressive forces. "Like- minded" simply means agreeing with each other; there is limited room for difference in an organisation of the "like-minded".

"Participation" is the kicker: it really means providing a vehicle so that "like-minded" "progressive" people can"participate" in an organised way in political activity, ie impose their views on others.

At the risk of greatly upsetting those in GetUp, the underlying rhetoric bears a striking resemblance to that used by another organisation that I once campaigned against, the far right League of Rights. Once strong in country Australia, the League was another strong believer in "participatory" democracy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in a democracy with groups of like minded people gathering together to argue their views, nor is there anything wrong with that group using modern communications technology to organise and to promote those views. After all, I try to do the same at a personal level. However, GetUp's apparent success at the summit raised a number of issues in my mind that concern me.

Call me dumb or even naive if you like, but the thought that particular groups might organise to try to influence the summit did not occur to me. I simply accepted that there was a selection process and that that process would take place in good faith to try to select delegates that were both broadly representative and capable of making a contribution to the summit's objective in terms of new ideas.

In a sense, Mr Rudd's comment that those supporting the constitutional monarchy had only themselves to blame for not nominating gives the lie to the whole proceedings.

I did not nominate because I did not think that I would be selected in a competitive process. Further, had I nominated, the idea that I should go to a summit on new ideas prepared to defend constitutional monarchy would have been very much a second order issue, given the range of other important issues to be addressed. Had I gone and been part of the governance group, I could well have walked out in protest at the way proceedings appear to have been taken over by a single issue.

These are purely personal reactions. Let me stand back and look at a few broader issues.

There is no doubt of the power of the internet in politics. We can see this in the case of Kevin07, GetUp, as well as in the success of the Obama campaign in the United States. However, this power is unbalanced and, to a degree, unrepresentative. We can see this if we look at two key dimensions, access and interest.

The recent Australian census data showed considerable local variation in the distribution of broadband and, I think, computers themselves. This means that people have differential access to the technology and, hence, different opportunities to access information and to articulate views.

This problem has been recognised for a long time, leading to suggestions that the information age would lead to a new kind of under-privilege.

Interest is the second dimension. Even including social networking tools such as facebook that actually have a wide coverage among the young of all groups, the internet domain tends to be the province of the better educated who simply feel more comfortable with words.

Now here the census data shows considerable geographic variation in education levels across Australia, a variation linking to variations in broadband and compute access.

I recognise that I am not saying anything especially profound here. All I am saying is that there is a significant group of Australians, probably well over a third, who are essentially outside the on-line environment in terms of access and interest.

The problem that this group (and I think our society) faces it that the rise of the internet has indeed encouraged more participation among those willing and and able to participate, marginalising those unable or unwilling to access the technology.

This does not stop this group having views. My concern is that the gap between their views and those I see espoused on-line may well be widening again as it did during the Keating years. If so, we may well be building a later problem.

In all this, my argument about participation is that we have to be clear who is participating and for what purpose. We also need to understand who is not participating and why.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Summit Wrap-up

My thanks to LE and Lexcen for understanding my position. Both are republicans, but both wanted to see more substance. Neil, too, took the same position. Both Club Troppo and Andrew Bartlett picked up my summit post.

I will give the delegates the compliment of picking up their conclusions in a later post. In the meantime, I commend Andrew's summary to you.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tim Blair on the summit

From time to time I read Tim Blair. I rarely agree with him, but I like an alternative view. I really roared with laughter at his coverage of the 2020 summit.

Sunday Reflections - facilitation, fashion and the 2020 summit

As I write, the 1,000 delegates to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 2020 summit will be eating breakfast in preparation for the second day.

I have always regarded the summit as a bit problematic at both a professional and personal level.

At a professional level, this type of facilitated process can be useful in drawing out new ideas if well managed. However, the very nature of the process means that truly new ideas are less likely to emerge, less likely to survive if they do emerge. The reasons for this are simple.

There are one hundred delegates in each broad topic area. Each delegate was asked to review submissions made, along with the outcomes from the mini-summits. Each was asked to come with one developed idea, so we start with a pool of one hundred ideas. Many of those ideas will be similar, or at least have common features.

The first part of the process involves getting existing ideas down, hence all the butcher's paper. This is followed by a process of combination and exclusion to reduce the ideas down to a manageable list. This covers day one of the summit. Then on day two, today, there will be a further facilitated process to reduce the list down to a small number of ideas to go forward as the final selections.

Note that there is very little in this process about ideas generation as such, it is in fact about ideas exclusion. Now we come to a second problem, the large numbers involved.

Without attempting any rigorous maths, if we allow three hours for the ideas generation/getting down phase, we have about 1.8 minutes per delegate. Clearly, it is going to be difficult for all delegates to participate in discussion. Even with strong chairing, the prominent and/or strong willed are likely to get more than their fair share of time.

As the process moves into the exclusion phase, the extent of common views in the room becomes important. Ideas without support drop out, followed by ideas with limited support and so on.

Here we can think of common views in two different ways, common views at the start of the process as compared to common views formed through the process.

One of the process objectives in a normal facilitation process of this type focused on generation of new ideas is in fact to stop opening views simply transferring through to become the common view formed by the process. Otherwise, the process does little more than reinforce original ideas and positions. My concern with the 2020 summit was that it was likely to do just that, given both process and the way delegates were selected.

At a personal level, my judgement was that the summit was unlikely to really address the issues that I consider to be important in an effective way, but was likely to come up with things that I thought were shallow or with which I disagreed. I say this in part because I know that my own views are not representative of what I perceive to be the most commonly held views among summit participants.

I stand to be corrected here by today's results, but so far I am not encouraged.

I chose the governance stream and the question of the republic as my benchmark. I did so for a number of reasons.

At a personal level, I remain a supporter of the constitutional monarchy for both symbolic and practical reasons. I see little reason for change in the short to medium term.

I have also written quite extensively on this blog about the problems as I see them with our existing systems of government and public administration. Here I believe that there does need to be major change in the short to medium term if Australia is to perform more effectively as a nation.

In the period leading up to the summit it was clear that there would be a strong push to make the republic the number one idea. It was less clear that the governance group would be able to come to grips with the more complex and fundamental issues relating to the performance of our government and administrative systems.

The first part of the process in the governance group, the ideas generation/getting down phase, appears to have focused on constitutional issues. However, this was clearly not grabbing delegates. According to the Sydney Morning Herald report:

Stream co-chair Maxine McKew had earlier called on them to show more passion after the original recommendations - which included a constitutional convention to revamp commonwealth-state relations, consideration of a bill of rights, and releasing cabinet documents after 10 years, not 30 - met with a lukewarm reaction.

"I was looking out at all your faces … I didn't see a smile, I didn't hear a whoop," Ms McKew, the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, told the delegates.

Now I would have thought that it was a bit hard to get a "whoop" out of serious constitutional issues. Anyway, thus encouraged, delegates came down in favour of a republic by 2012 as their big idea. Then, geed along by Federal Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, delegates voted by a two thirds majority to shorten the target date to 2010.

I do not know what will happen today. I do know that if the 2020 summit adopts republic 2010 as a core idea, it is going to suck the oxygen out of debate on other reform issues extending well beyond governance.

The problem with the republic is that it is a strongly symbolic issue, one that divides. I think that a referendum may well achieve yes this time, simply because of Mr Rudd's great personal popularity as well as the overwhelming power of the Labor Party just at present. However, it is likely to create scarring, opening up complicated divides across the country that may take some time to heal.

As I write, I can hear the TV in the background. The panel discussion is dominated by the republic issue. And so it begins.


The initial summit summary is already on line. Listening to the news reports, the final stages of the process in which ideas were pruned down left some dissatisfaction. This is to be expected.

Again as might be expected, the summit outcomes are very variable in terms of quality, a mixture of good and very pedestrian. I will give an assessment later.

The Governance group came down pretty much as expected. However, the language used is grossly misleading and cannot be allowed to stand without challenge.

I found my wife's reaction interesting. Unlike me, she does support a republic. Listening to the news, she commented that she hoped that the republic issue would not derail other key discussion and changes.

Well, speaking for myself, it means that instead of focusing on other key issues, I am going to have to spend time defending the system I like.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

John Button's funeral - a personal note

From left, former PMs Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating, former Governors General Peter Hollingworth and Bill Hayden, leave John Button's funeral. Picture: by David Crosling from The Australian

Monday (14 April 08) Dee and I flew to Melbourne for John Button's state funeral. I am glad I went and at many different levels, although getting there proved far more of a battle than I expected.

Saturday night was one of those bad nights we all get from time to time when coming down with something. I spent most of Sunday alternating between bedroom and bathroom. Monday morning dawned somewhat better, but I was still pretty fragile.

I had to go to work first, but decided to come back home from the office and go to the airport by car. Dee was coming from a different direction.

Car may sound odd given airport parking costs, but we are so close to the airport that it is almost impossible to get a taxi to take you, worse coming back. Most drivers in fact refuse a $13-15 fare. As it turned out, a major accident meant that it took me an hour twenty to drive the few kays. Fortunately the plane was delayed, otherwise I would have missed it.

The story continued in Melbourne as the taxi took a rather circuitous route. In all, it was after nine before we got to the restaurant, a five hour trip!

The dinner group was a mixed one.

One of the three Departmental secretaries I had worked for, a deputy secretary from his period, as well as a previous senior SES officer who in fact took over one of my old branches. Then there were John Button's former staff. These included a well-known fellow blogger. Finally me, Departmental but married to a former staff member.

I am not going to give names of those there, nor am I going to talk about the details of conversations. I do not feel it to be appropriate. However, I will talk about a few threads that were important to me.

I am not naturally gregarious unless in the right mood or where the role demands it. This is especially true if I am not feeling good in myself. I am sure that many of you can understand this. So I was actually nervous and a bit uncertain.

I need not have worried. I was sitted immediately between one of John's staffers who had the same interests as me and John's former personal secretary, a rather nice women who I liked and who has worked for the former Victorian Premier John Cain for the last fifteen years. Other staffers who I had known were also friendly. So there was a pleasant atmosphere and lots to talk about.

A fair bit of the conversation dealt with issues relating to the office, internal workings of Government and the ALP. I obviously found this interesting, although very much as an outsider to some of it. However, there were a couple of points in overall conversation that pulled me up rather short.

At one point in answer to a question from some of my former colleagues, I mentioned that I was doing some work for a NSW Government agency. This led to fierce criticism of the incompetence of the NSW system to the point that I felt obliged to defend at least my immediate colleagues.

More importantly, in discussion with one former Button staff member (a discussion that would have made some of my former staff cranky), he gave a number of examples where he and the office had had to force action or positions on the Department.

I did not disagree with his positions. What struck me, pulled me up short, was that these were areas where we had previously had clearly defined policy positions and supporting processes that fitted pretty well with what he was trying to achieve. He had no idea of this.

How, I was forced to ask myself, had I failed so badly that while some things went on from strength to strength, the core knowledge and supporting positions that formed the soul had been lost in such a short time? I need to think about this because it links directly to my part completed post, Saturday Morning Musings - Finding new approaches to policy development, and to my broader musings on public policy.

Dinner finished quite late.

The next day dawned cool and overcast. The funeral was at 10.15, but we had been advised the night before to get there about an hour early to be sure of finding a seat, so we left the hotel about 8.30 to find a place to eat.

I have always liked Melbourne. The city is very different, appearance and feel, from other Australian cities. We found a cafe and I had one of the nicest cups of coffee that I have ever had.

There was already a large crowd by the time we arrived at the church. The thing that struck me first, almost with a sense of shock, was the large crowd of elderly gray haired men and, to a lesser degree, women.

This probably sounds very odd. Of course many of John Button's friends and colleagues were going to be older, he was seventy five when he died.

The thing was that in attending the funeral I was going back twenty years. These were people that, in many cases, I had not seen since that time when they were at the height of their careers and I was a relatively young SES officer. My visual images of them were twenty years old. There was actually a physical re-adjustment as I looked at the crowd and tried to link past and present images.

Outside the church there were a series of tables with pads on which people could write their names. We did so, then moved to the church entrance where our names were checked-off a list of attendees. Here people were split into two groups: close family friends and major dignitaries in one line going into the body of the church, the rest of us into another line moving towards a flight of stairs.

Climbing the stairs, we found ourselves in a balcony area that swept in a semi-circle like a theatre from front to front around the church. I had never heard of St Michael's, so the church's size and charm came as a surprise.

We found seats with a group from the previous evening and passed the time chatting and watching new arrivals. There is something seriously addictive about spotting people that you don't know, but recognise from TV!

Time passed and the church began to get very warm. Still not well and after a late night, I began to get uncomfortable. The Queen must have a constitution of cast iron when you consider the volume of her ceremonial activities. I was just thinking that I might have to leave when I was saved by the start of the service. This was both entertaining and intensely fascinating to someone like me.

We all see people through a prism set by the areas where our life and theirs overlap, interact. So we only ever see a slice.

In my case, the relationship was professional, friendly but set by the bounds of our respective positions. I knew of some of his other interests from conversations and the media, but did not know the details. The service slowly unveiled a picture of a multi-faceted man determined to enjoy life, a man who used humour and laughter at himself and others to mask internal pain and the sometimes dislocation caused by his own personality, including dislocation in his personal life.

The service also provided fascinating insights into Victorian, especially Melbourne, intellectual life and politics. Just as Melbourne is different from other cities, so are its intellectual life and politics. I think that a person from outside Victoria, especially one with limited knowledge of Australian history, might have sat in puzzled silence at some points.

Finally, the service was in itself a historical event. This was a gathering of an old political guard who had shared great events, a gathering in which secrets were revealed and an old wound publicly healed.

The service was opened by the minister at St Michael's, Dr Francis Macnab, a long time friend of John Button's. Author (among other things) of Don't Call Me Grumpy: What older men really want, Dr Macnab is an internationally recognised psychologist.

Dr Macnab opened by explaining that John Button had not wanted a heavy religious content. There were just two hymns that John had selected himself, The Lord's My Shepherd (Scottish Psalter 1650) and William Blake's Jerusalem.

I found this choice interesting because they are two of my favourites.

The first provides a message of hope to the living and has been one of the most sung and best loved Christian hymns for a very long time. The second, while mystical and very English, is actually a call for change:
I will not cease from mental flight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
Dr Macnab then provided an overview of John Button and his life.

Dr Macnab was followed by John Cain, the former Premier of Victoria from 1982-1990.

In a talk spiced with dry humour, Mr Cain spoke especially of the role that John Button had played in the reform and rebuilding of the Victorian ALP after the split of 1955. To understand this, we need to go back into the past.

During the Second World War, the Australian Communist Party emerged as a strong unified party with a growing power base in the unions that threatened previous Labor Party links with the union movement. The ALP formed groups to counter the communist threat.

During this same period, the staunch Roman Catholic and strongly anti-communist Bob Santamaria created the Movement as an anti-communist force. With links deep within the Roman Catholic Church, the Movement fought communist influence and sought to take control of the groups, in so doing threatening to take control of the Labor Party itself.

While both Movement and Communist Party operated nationally, both were especially strong in Victoria. In 1955, tensions within the Victorian ALP came to a head and the Party split, a split that then extended across Australia, leading to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.

The end result was an emasculated Labor Party, dominated in Victoria by a faction more concerned with ideological purity and the maintenance of its own position than with actually winning elections. A reform group including John Button, then a lawyer with the Labor law firm Maurice Blackburn, was formed to fight the dominant faction.

The task seemed hopeless. The reform group was consistently out-voted five to one. Yet it was finally to win.

In all this, there was a persistent letter writer called Arthur Cartwright. Well informed, Cartwright wrote scathing letters and articles attacking the dominant group within the Victorian ALP. These were not without influence, leading the head of the dominant group to remark I can put up with you blokes … But wait 'til I get hold of that Arthur Cartwright.

Only at the funeral was it revealed by John Cain that John Button was Arthur Cartwright. It was also revealed that Arthur Cartwright survived long after the period in question, writing (among other things) persistent letters to the Geelong Australian Rules Football Club - the Cats - providing trenchant criticism of the Cats' performance!

Nor was this the only example of a Button nom de plume. We learned that he had a love of different identities and indeed of disguises even during his ministerial period. I had a vision of this gnome - John Button was a very small man - sitting there chuckling as he planned his escapades.

John Cain was followed by former Labor Opposition Leader, Minister and Governor General Bill Hayden. This was something of a surprise, because John Button was the man who told Bill Hayden in 1983 that he had to stand down as Opposition Leader to make way for Bob Hawke. This action put Labor into power under Hawke, but fractured a long friendship.

In a gracious speech marked by the same type of dry humour as John Cain's, Bill Hayden spoke of his long friendship with John Button, starting with the event that had, for so long, fractured that friendship.

Mr Hayden outlined events, acknowledging that John Button had not only approached the issue with integrity, but was also acting in the interests of the Party. He also read a message from Bob Hawke who was in China and could not return, thus capturing all three points of the triangle in one speech.

At the end of this segment of Mr Hayden's speech, he got one of the most massive laughs of the morning. After a perceptible pause, he said: In all this, I never thought to ask John whether Bob wanted the job. The audience literally dissolved in laughter.

An article by Alan Ramsey written after the funeral provides a rather good overview of this episode.
Bill Hayden was followed by long standing friend Jim Kennan SC, a leading lawyer and former Labor Victorian Attorney General, who spoke of other aspects of John Button's life including his sense of humour, love of disguises and proclivity for practical jokes.

In turn, Morag Fraser, a former editor of Eureka Street and currently Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, spoke of his style and contribution to cultural activities. In her words:

He was a complex individual who retained a child's capacity for wonder and a child's capacity for precocious insights.
Nick and James Button followed. Nick read a poem by Peter Gebhardt specially written for John Button, while James spoke of John from a family perspective.

I really admire James. I have read his articles with interest, one triggering a post.

It cannot always have been easy growing up with John Button as a father.

Children with prominent parents or grandparents often face problems. You meet people, but have to cope with attitudes and expectations created by your family.

In my case in the gold-fish bowl of Armidale, I had to deal with expectations linked to both my father and grandfather. James and Nick had to deal with this type of pressure and divorce, remarriage, divorce, long term partnership.

In one of those coincidences, on the day of John Button's second marriage Denise and I decided to go to Sydney to see the Max Gilles Show at the Seymour Theatre. We were still keeping our relationship somewhat secret at this point from everyone in the Department and Minister's Office.

Blow me down, at intermission we ran into John Button and his new wife. He just stood there and twinkled at us as we talked!

James handled all the internal family issues in a gentle and inclusive fashion. He gave great praise to Joan Grant, John's partner in the last ten years of his life. Later, outside the church, I greatly admired the composure with which James handled the conflicting pressures of family and friends.

The service ended. With so many trying to get out of the church, it all took time. Outside I watched while Denise moved away to talk to some of the people she had known.

We thought of going to the refreshments that had been organised at Ormond College, but felt that we were really bit players in all this, that it would not have been quite right to go. Instead, we escaped away to have lunch at one of those laneway Italian restaurants that Melbourne has and which Clover Moore, Sydney's Mayor, so wishes to see in Sydney.

While getting to Melbourne was not easy, both Dee and I were just so glad that we had gone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great frustration with Australian official sites - help wanted

I was going to write my post on John Button's funeral tonight, but I wanted to check some facts first.

My initial needs were simple enough. I wanted to check precise details of Barry Jones career and especially the first date he became Minister Assisting John Button. I knew it was 1984, but I needed to be precise. I also wanted to check his exact title.

I could not find the details I wanted. Now there used to be a site, the Australian Parliamentary site, where you could access a lot of biographical data on past members. Another site, I thought that it was Australian Archives, had precise ministerial dates.

I have searched and searched for well over an hour now on these sites and others. Not only have I run out of time, but I am also very frustrated and therefore unenthusiastic about going on.

Precise details are important in some of the material I write.

In this case I finally thought to search on Administrative Arrangements Orders. These showed that the Department of Industry and Commerce became the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce on 13 December 1984, absorbing the technology functions from Barry's Department. So it was probably from this date that I started dealing with Barry as Minister Assisting. It was also from this time that I picked people and activities previously connected with DST.

Now this must all sound very arcane, but sometimes if you are writing on influences in public policy, you have to be very precise on dates to avoid making gross errors.

My request for help. If you know sites that contain precise details of the type of things that I am interested in, please let me know.

John Button's funeral - a note

Monday Dee and I flew to Melbourne for John Button's funeral. Monday night a number of former ministerial and Departmental staff gathered for dinner, with the funeral itself on Tuesday morning.

It was an interesting experience and I will write a post on it. In the meantime, I have had no time to post.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Finding new approaches to policy development

I know I often write about the reasons for success and failure in public policy. Still, this week I have spent a fair bit of time musing over it, sparked in part by my personal response to John Button's death including Bob Quiggin's comment on the post.

Both my post and Bob's comment referred to the work we were doing at a particular period and the new approaches we were trying to develop. That work still informs and unifies my analytical approach whether it be my comments on indigenous policy or child welfare matters. I think that it is still relevant to the issues I discussed in Fred Argy's question - Equality of opportunity: is more policy intervention needed?

This post outlines that approach, focusing on the analytical tools and theoretical concepts involved. I hope that it is not too dry.

As I write I am conscious of the irony of it all. Some of the particular things that I supported have morphed into what I now see as major reasons for current policy failure!

Importance of the right Intellectual and Political Climate

While the analytical tools and associated concepts are still useful, full effectiveness depends on the right intellectual and political climate.

I say intellectual as well as political, because both public policy and its administration in fact incorporate and are bound by sometimes unseen concepts and assumptions.

To bring about change, you have to identify and challenge those assumptions, or at least work around them. This was what Bob Quiggin was talking about in part when he referred to our attacks on sacred cows.

No matter how good the ideas one may have, they will wither if the climate isn't right.

In my post on John Button I suggested that the core role of Government was to set values. By this I do not mean the narrow ways the term is used today. We are now over obsessed with "values" to the point that this has become a major impediment to effective action. Rather, that Governments set the tone and direction for action.

They key thing about the election of the Hawke Government is that it provided a window for change, an atmosphere that encouraged new ideas and new approaches.

Complexity and Institutional Rigidities

The problems that Governments deal with are complex, as are the structures that evolve to manage the policy and program responses. This creates institutional and intellectual silos that impede broader action.

I have argued that the early periods of the Hawke Government were the time of greatest change and achievement. Even later achievements have their genesis in this earlier period.

As time passed, problems of complexity and institutional rigidity re-asserted themselves, slowly locking out new ideas and approaches. Things happened, but really new things became harder to achieve.

That is why this first period of the Rudd Government is so important. Its longer term achievements will depend upon the unleashed enthusiasm of this first period, the window before complexity and rigidity re-asserts itself.

My concern with Mr Rudd is simply this. He is a modern measurement man. Yet many of the things that he wants to achieve are long term and require new approaches. These things are harder to measure.

In all this, a key thing to remember is that the actual number of people in the system working on any topic is small, the number with the freedom to think outside the box smaller still.

This may sound strange, given the absolute number of public servants, but it's true. Most public servants are involved in doing, the numbers involved in policy development on specific topics are much fewer. Further, most of those are working on policy development are locked into agendas set by others.

I think that the core reason for our success in some of the things that we did achieve lay in the fact that, through happenstance as well as our own efforts, we were placed to some degree outside existing systems, unbound by the institutional constraints faced by others. To use management jargon, we were a skunk works!

The Matrix Approach

I now want to introduce the first tool we used, what I called the matrix approach. This is no more than an analytical device, but a very useful one.

In the middle of 1983 our job was to carve out new policy approaches for the development of Australia's electronics, aerospace and information industries.

Part of the reason for this lay in the perception inside the Department of Industry and Commerce that there was too much focus on declining industries, too little on emerging industries.

This perception was correct at many different levels. As a simple example, the Department had an entire division concerned with the textile sector, part of a section concerned with the computer industry.

Our role was to turn this around. For someone like me, this was equivalent to be given the keys of the lolly shop, freedom to do new things.

In starting, we faced a key problem.

The electronics, aerospace and information industries covered a diverse and very large sector in global terms, linked together by a common focus on electronics, computing, communications and systems.

We had little information about these sectors from either a global or local perspective. When I asked for all our past files on the aircraft industry, registry needed a trolley to bring them all up! There was not one policy file in the true sense of the word, not a single detailed economic analysis. All the files dealt with very specific issues.

All this meant that we were starting from scratch. So fundamental research was required. However, there was another problem, the very wide range of policies, policy instruments and regulations affecting the sector at global and local level. We had to identify these and their impacts.

Finally, we needed a way to ensure integration in our policy approaches so that we dealt with like issues in a like way.

We adopted the matrix approach as a device to manage these various difficulties.

In concept, this was very simple.

We started by listing all our sectors along one axis. For example, we had the aerospace or computer hardware industries. Each in turn could be broken into sub-sectors. This provided the focus for our industry research.

Along the other axis we listed every variable that we could think of that might affect each sector. This included policies and policy instruments, as well as variables relating in a general sense to industry structure, conduct and performance. To do this, we had to research a range of economic and policy areas, many well outside our formal institutional ambit.

We then compared the two, looking at common and differential impacts across sectors and sub-sectors. This provided a guide to possible actions

This sounds simple and in many ways it was. Yet the effects were quite profound, because it gave us a coherent approach that required us to act across policy areas in some ways very remote from our starting point.

Take, as an example, the problem of shortages of people with computer skills. This was a core issue in a number of sectors, requiring action within the education portfolio. The result was the first ever Commonwealth funding for specific tied places in universities.

Today I think that the precedent we established has had many perverse results, a problem that I addressed in Australia's Universities - a personal Mea Culpa. Yet we needed the skilled people.

In all, the matrix approach remains a valuable tool, one that could be applied, for example, in dealing with questions of social inequality.

Horizontal vs Vertical Measures

As our approach evolved, we had a constant problem with the view in the central coordinating agencies and especially Treasury that horizontal measures were always best. This view remains today and is equally a problem.

I am dealing with jargon here, so let me explain.

A horizontal measure simply means a universal policy, policy instrument or program that is applied across the board. A vertical measure is one targeted to the needs of a particular sector or geographic area.

There is a very strongly held view in Government that measures must be horizontal, universally applicable. Yet the reality is, as our work showed, that so-called horizontal measures have very different vertical effects.

The reason for this is simple.

Australia is not a homogenous whole. This means that any universal measure will have differential and sometimes perverse impacts in different areas and different sectors. By contrast, vertical measures can be better targeted so that they achieve the desired result. They can also be be integrated in different ways to achieve horizontal impacts.

All this led us to coin the mantra horizontal is vertical, vertical is horizontal. A decision as to what was better could only be made on the facts.

We really struggled to get this across in the face of universal prescriptions.

If you look at my writing on, for example, indigenous policy you will see that I am still fighting this fight.

Indigenous policy is a vertical concept, but its application is horizontal in that it is often applied universally independent of on-ground variations among our indigenous people. I have argued that we must take these variations into account, so I want more differentiated vertical measures.

I have also argued that we need to distinguish between problems that are indigenous problems and those that are subsets of broader problems that must be addressed at a broader level. Here I am arguing for more horizontal measures.

I find all this just as hard to get across today as I did in the eighties.

Intellectual Underpinnings

In trying to get new things through we were forced to develop quite sophisticated underpinnings, concepts to support our work. Some of these came from my own research and work, some from others, some from experience.

In all this, I find it hard to distinguish between the I and the we in describing them. All staff contributed. How, for example, do I identify Bob Quiggin's role?

He had limited experience when he started with us. However, he is a bright bloke who was prepared to challenge. So his contributions came both from his work on specific projects and his contribution to debate.

To manage this, I will just use "we" and "our" unless there is something very specific I want to recognise.

Central to our thinking was the reasons for policy failure. We believed that most policy failed in whole or part for three key reasons:

  1. Failure to properly specify the problem to be addressed including, in particular, a focus on symptoms rather than causes.
  2. Failure to properly articulate the policy response to the problem even if the problem itself was properly identified.
  3. Failure to properly link the policy response to the problem, assuming both were properly specified.

This may not sound especially profound, but it has significant effects on thinking when turned into questions:

  1. What is the problem we are addressing?
  2. What is our policy response?
  3. How does this relate to the problem we want to address?

In thinking about these questions, we developed the idea of what Doug Stuart called the plus/plus field. This centred on four quadrants, minus/minus, plus/minus, minus/plus and plus/plus.

Policy in the minus/minus field always had negative results. In the plus/minus and minus/plus fields results were always neutral, with pluses offsetting negatives. Only in the plus/plus field could you be sure of positive outcomes.

This may sound very mechanistic, and indeed it was in some respects. Yet it encapsulated our thinking in important ways.

Our starting premise that most policy failed meant that we were very critical of initial ideas, including our own. We did not reject them, we wanted ideas to bloom, but they needed to be tested. This made us reluctant to support immediate solutions without test.

However, once we were sure that ideas were in the plus/plus field we wanted to move. So long as proposals were in the plus/plus field we did not have to worry too much about refining because we knew the results would be positive. We could always fix the details later.

All this placed us somewhat at odds to the conventional Canberra, indeed Australian, approach.

To be continued