Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wednesday Afterthoughts - foreign policy, John Button

I was quite critical of Mr Rudd 's overseas trip in my post Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status. While I stand by those criticisms, I do feel obliged to come to Mr Rudd's defence on one point.

Why, on earth, do some commentators feel that the trip must be justified by specific achievements.? This is the measurement, outcomes, world gone crazy, confusing short and long term.

Foreign policy should be a long term thing. This is Mr Rudd's first overseas trip as PM. He needs to increase his understanding and establish the relationships that will aid us in the future. That is the key outcome, one whose success can only be measured by the future.

The short term focus adopted by some commentators in their desire for immediate tangible results is silly. Worse, it's damn dangerous because attempts to achieve immediate results in a few days may destroy longer term value.

This point links to another post, John Button - a personal memoir. In that post I suggested that John's greatest achievements lay in the first part of his career, that the rise of the central coordinating agencies in combination with the adoption of hierarchical approaches reduced his later effectiveness.

Thinking about this in the light of the responses to Mr Rudd's trip, John Button's ministerial career coincided with the arrival of the measurement and outcomes world.

I remember the arrival of program budgeting.

I was a strong supporter because it made sense to group related activities intended to achieve common ends in ways that could be measured. In my own case, the electronics, aerospace and information industries became the program, with improved export performance the key measure. This made a lot of sense because we were trying to develop a coordinated approach across these linked industries.

Within a few years the program budgeting approach had morphed to one based on institutional structures. Now it actually worked against the integration that I was trying to achieve.

While I did support performance measurement in a general sense, I did not support the way it was introduced in my Department.

We had always been performance focused, with long term goals in mind. Our output was high. My staff achieved far more than many other areas. But we were also flexible, going with the flow. A priority action was a priority action only so long as it made sense in the context of our long term aims.

Now I had to specify what would be done over the next quarter and then be measured by it.

This was fundamentally incompatible with our approach. We had little direct control over the ever-changing external environment. To make progress, we had to adjust all the time, working with what we had. Now I had to specify specific quarterly actions.

Pity Mike Fitzpatrick, my poor Division Head.

I would do my best to specify my actions, but would then ignore them entirely if an alternative path seemed better. I would say that this is what we do to achieve x, but Mike would say that we have said that we will do y.

I think, and this remains my view, that policy development and implementation is a process that needs constant flexibility.

There are cases where rigorous project management approaches can be applied. But this holds once the project has been defined. Otherwise, good policy development is messy and iterative. If you set and then enforce defined short term output targets on top, effectiveness declines.

Finally, I was pleased that my post on John Button was picked up by Neil and Club Troppo.


Bob Quiggin has just left on the Button post the most wonderful compliment I have ever had. I could not resist sharing it with you. Bob wrote:

The Belshavik days were fun, and you, Jim, were a such a pirate you should have come with an eyepatch and parrot. The words 'safe harbour' didn't carry much weight with you and sacred cows were served up roasted, with potatoes on the side. It was FUN.

This, to my mind, captures so much of what we as a group tried to achieve.

I write about my own role, but we were a collective. I tried to articulate the overall vision and provide top cover. But beyond this, the things that we achieved all depended on individuals. This is the key to real change, people who want to achieve things.

Bob's general comments are worth reading. He started (I think) as a class five with us, so has a different perspective.

I thank you, Bob. Dee and I are going to try to get to John's funeral in Melbourne.

No comments: