Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the need for administrative simplification

When I was first at university I found quite all those descriptions of social structures so loved by anthropologists to be quite eye-glazing. Now, willy-nilly, I am being forced to revisit them.

In the case of the Kamilaroi, the structure of moiety, section and totemic clan created defining sets of relationships that encompassed not just people, but the world around them. Everything had a place and was in its place. The difficulty for the outsider lies in understanding not just the mechanics of relationships, the eye-glazing part, but what it actually might mean in practice.

To the anthropologist, the fact that one group of people that a boy might marry can be defined as mother's mother's brother's daughter's daughter is of great importance. To the boy knowing the social structures, it just was.

Even then, human beings being human beings, problems could arise. The reason why there were social sanctions including punishment by death against certain types of relationships is that such relationships existed.

We all face great difficulties in understanding other people, more so when the cultural or behavioural markers that we use to interpret and simplify behaviour and relationships do not apply or apply in sometimes subtly different ways.

You can see this in the difficulty that Australian and US people sometimes find in understanding each other. Another example is the way Australians use the word please as compared to Asian cultures.

Over the years I have worked in the government, corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

In my work as a policy adviser, I have tried to emphasise the need to recognise and accommodate variation. This is less important in the private sector. Of course firms have to recognise cross-cultural issues. They also have to recognise variations in market places. But, in general, the issues that they deal with are simpler, the likelihood of perverse (unexpected) results less.  

  Commentary on the results from Australia's national literacy and numeracy tests for years 3, 5 and 7 and 9 released yesterday have focused on the much poorer results in the Northern Territory, pulled down by the high number of Aboriginal students. Of course they are worse, the gap is substantial, but we already knew that. Other than providing a rough measure of the gap still to be met, they tell us very little that we did not already know.

The same thing holds at individual and national level.

As parents, we were obviously interested in where our daughters stood in these types of tests. However, beyond interest, we would only have responded if the test results told us something we did not know, indicating that there was a problem or, perhaps, that our daughters were doing better than we realised.

At state or territory level, and with the exception of the Northern Territory, I find it difficult to know just what the variations in results mean. To understand this, I would need to understand the differences between state education systems, as well as variations in demography. The Australian Capital Territory, for example, should do a little better than NSW simply because it starts with (on average) a better educated population to begin with.

Variations within states are not published, but would be of interest. Again, I am not sure that they would tell us anything new, but they might provide a measure of what we already knew. However, these figures are unlikely to be published because of their potential impact on the dynamics of state politics.

In my writing in the lead-up too and following the Federal election I suggested that the Rudd Government risked trying to do too much, too soon. Then and later I tried to point to the problems associated with the mechanistic application of simplified universal measurement based approaches.

In a sense, the chickens have started coming home to roost. The failures of the Rudd Government, and there have been failures, are all directly linked to the points I tried to make.

Continuing failures in the delivery of remote indigenous housing in the Northern Territory have forced drastic simplification. The Government is struggling to deliver the simplified national industrial relations system in the face of regional and industry variation. Problems with delivery on the schools side have forced changes to the national stimulus package, in so doing reducing the number of social houses. According to the Australian, the government's $2 billion flagship training program is facing a crisis of confidence with almost universal criticism from employers, unions and educators that it is doing nothing to solve the skills shortage.

These are not party political comments. Over the last four years I have written extensively on what I see as failures in public policy and administration, focusing on both the NSW Labor and Howard Governments. My charge is that our current systems of public administration are no longer effective.

Written in June last year, Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? expresses my concern that the Rudd Government was in danger of replicating past errors. I returned to this theme in January in Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing. These posts reflect my concern about the importation of non-working models.

Our problem today is that our systems have become so ritualised and inter-connected that they are as difficult to understand as Kamilaroi kinship systems. A full process mapping chart of a unit in a  modern agency with its multiple hard and dotted reporting lines and reporting and decision procedures is in fact far more complex than the equivalent map for a Kamilaroi local group.

We need to simplify if we are to improve performance. Here we face another problem. Those recruited to positions have generally grown up in the current system. This holds whether people come from the public service or corporate sector. There is a pervasive management culture that, in turn, is a sub-set of the broader culture. People know that things are wrong, but find it hard to think outside the box, harder to bring about change.

Sometimes when I talk about these things I am seen as out of touch, conservative, some-one who wants to restore the past. I am not and I do not. My post Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities can be read in conservative terms. However, it is not conservative to suggest that an entire system has failed.  My frustrations with what I see as non-performance have simply radicalised me.

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