Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - more problems in public administration

Well, the girls get back this morning from their South East Asian tour. It will be nice to see them.

It's really quite odd.

I decided some considerable time ago that the probabilities were that climate change was a problem and that we needed to do something about it. Then Neil increased his focus on climate change on his Google Reader. As a dedicated reader, I have at least scanned the material. At the end of the process, I find myself with a higher degree of skepticism, as well as a somewhat greater degree of disinterest.

I have tried to work out why this might be the case, because it is an emotional rather than logical reaction.

I don't bother reading much of the anti-climate change stuff, although I do scan it from time to time because it does sometimes contain useful material about the sillier proposed responses to climate change. I find that helpful. Now when exposed to so much pro-climate change material I find myself responding in the same way as I so often do to the anti-material, I turn off.

I think that my core problem remains that, having decided that climate change is a real problem, I want to better understand what we might do about it. Neil's post, Also getting impatient with Mr Garrett, contains a useful link through to a McKinsey paper that attempts to rank various options by cost. However, the paper left me dissatisfied because it didn't give me enough information to make my own judgements.

I suppose, too, that I am more interested at the moment in the question of what Australia might do. It seems quite clear that there are going to be significant variations between countries as to the best course, taking into account economic and geographic differences.

If you look at my arguments on public administration and policy in an Australian context, you will see that one of my continuing themes is the way in which one-size fits all national policies fail because they fail to take into account diversity within this country. Global action on climate change faces the same type of problem, but just writ very large. To manage this, we really need to have worked through the detail as to which options will best suit this country, given overall potential targets and our specific conditions.

By the way, Neil, I have been enjoying the variety of posts on Neil's Second Decade!

Sticking with public administration for the moment, one of my difficulties in arguing for change in current approaches to public policy and administration, a topic that is probably eye-glazingly dull for many readers, lies in the risk of simply being typed as old fashioned, as harking back to some past golden age. There is no such thing, of course.

There have been two legs to my arguments.

The first is that current approaches simply don't work very well. Over the last three years I think that I have had a pretty good predictive record in pointing out why some things were unlikely to work, along with the reasons why. There was no rocket science in this, simply the application of first principles combined with experience and a bit of research. While I do take some degree of morbid pleasure in my track record, it would obviously be better if things did work.

The home insulation fiasco has drawn out some of the things that I have been talking about in quite dramatic fashion. Now here there has been some very revealing evidence before the current Senate Inquiry. By the way, do read my last post, Patrician Rudd, after you have read this one.

The Office of the Coordinator General was set up to supervise the rollout of stimulus programs and coordinate with states and territories. According to the ABC report:

Coordinator General Glenys Beauchamp said her office did not raise any safety concerns with Mr Rudd or other ministers following the first three deaths.

"There wasn't much point in briefing the PM or Minister [Mark] Arbib on something that was already in the public arena," she said.

She also confirmed that no concerns were raised with her.

I blinked. The first line of reporting should have been Environment to Minister Garrett. But how can you see not much point in briefing just because things were already in the public arena?

When asked if she considered the program a success, Ms Beauchamp replied: "From the department's point of view we had arrangements in place to monitor the program and the program was meeting its milestones."

Exactly. I have written a fair bit about the problems that can arise with the current approaches to cascading milestones and key performance indicators. Once you have them, you have to work to them even when it becomes clear that they are incomplete or don't necessarily make sense.

The inquiry also heard that the Government had made it clear there should be no delay to the July 1, 2009 start-up date for the program.

"There certainly was a strong view by Government and by senior officials that we should continue to press on to meet the timeframes that had been set out by the Government," former coordinator general Mike Mrdak said.

While I have been critical of the Rudd Government's approach in trying to do too much too soon and in a mechanistic way without working all the issues through, I don't necessarily have a problem with this one. This was an economic stimulus measure that had to be delivered in certain time frames to achieve its effect.

The key issue is how you manage the risks and uncertainties that flow from the necessary haste.

The second leg to my argument about the need for reform covers the changes that need to be made to improve performance. This one is far harder to both develop and argue, for the systemic problems we now have are due to a complex interaction between different forces including public opinion, the media and prevailing views about structure, governance and management.

While I will continue to dig away at particular policy problems, I guess you can expect a fair bit more now on what needs to be done at a system level.                


Jayne said...

The fact Garrett failed to even read the report predicting these errors and dangers calls into question his approval of the North-South Pipeline here in Vic (taking water from drought-effected irrigation food bowl so we can flush dunnys in Melb, I paraphrase), his approval of more uranium mines in NT and the desal plant in Vic, amongst the multitude of decisions/policies he's passed since gaining his portfolio.
Everything now needs close scrutiny, similar to Vic State Govt pollie Madden and the leaked email.

Jim Belshaw said...

You make some interesting points, Jayne. In fairness to Mr Garrett, though, I would not have expected him to have read the report in question.

I would, however, have expected him to be fully briefed on all the issues - this should have included a summary of the report in question - and possible responses. I would also have expected him to ask questions so that he was fully satisfied as to the course proposed by the Department.

I agree that the whole affair does call into question some other decisions. The leaked email you refer to falls into another class entirely. I have been meaning to comment on this one, so thanks for the link!

Jayne said...

Comment away on the pollie behind the leaked email, there has been much gnashing of teeth and wailing at the demolition permitted upon beautiful, historical buildings (some with heritage protection) in recent years.