Sunday, February 05, 2012

Flooding rains, short termism, politics & public policy

probability of exceeding median rainfall - click on the map for a larger version of the map

On 19 January, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology released its three monthly national seasonal rainfall outlook map. I used to run these maps quite regularly during the long drought that gripped South Eastern Australia.

The Bureau's computer modelling suggested that the north and west of the country could expect wet conditions, with the chances of above median rainfall in the south east about 50 per cent or less.

As I write, Southern Queensland and New England are awash again.

The NSW Government has declared 17 council areas natural disaster zones in the past week, including on the far north and mid-north coast. The photo shows the flood waters at Moree where 10,000 people are isolated by flood waters.Moree is stricken by floodwaters. Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald.

In Queensland, the townships of Mitchell and Roma are awash.

One of the problems during the long dry spell was that people confused a short term phenomenon (the long drought) with a long one (climate change). This led to some of the silly thinking and action that I have complained about before.

It was always going to be the case that floods would return. In New England, inland towns such as Moree and Narrabri have been swamped many times before. The Moree flood may be the highest since 1955, but that just makes the point about past floods. 

The rivers that have their headwaters on the New England Tablelands flow very slowly once they enter the plains because the fall in the country to the Darling-Barwon River is quite small. Water builds up, spreads widely and then drains slowly. The big storage dams in western New England were built in part for flood mitigation purposes.

During the long drought they fell to very low storage levels. Now they are full.

People are funny cattle, to use an old Australian bush phrase. During the long drought many in Sydney (including some officials) argued that we had to depopulate the inland, reduce population to a lower carrying capacity. As the wet returned, many of those same people argued that we should move people out of flood prone areas. Meantime, climate change has largely vanished from popular discussion. Again, we have the same confusion between short and long term.

In my last post, Rinehart, the media & technological change, I wrote:

As human beings, we are hard wired towards stability. We need this at a personal level. So when changes take place in what we see as the natural order of things, there is a sense of shock.

Our human lives are short. Our need for stability means that states that continue for long enough become in our mind the natural order of things. Then things change and we respond.

A child born in Western New England during a long drought may become frightened by the sudden heavy rain. In Sydney presently, people wonder if summer will ever return. This makes it hard to think longer term independent of current events. 

Australian PM Julia Gillard is clearly in trouble. This latest story will give you a feel. She has not been able to establish that centre of calm, that feeling of stability, required to work her way though the challenges she faces. She and her colleagues are constantly responding to the immediate.

Most of the discussions about Ms Gillard's problems are put in a political frame. I think that the real problem lies in the way we have made our underlying structures responsive to the short term and to change.

Certainly politicians bear some of the responsibility, for they constantly want things packaged for immediate effect, react to the immediate. We saw this in NSW over the last ten years of Labor rule when cosmetic packaging became a substitute for policy. Yet it's more than that.

We are confused about the role of our politicians, applying managerial models.

The PM is not in fact the CEO of the country, ministers are not the CEOs of their Departments. Cabinet is not the equivalent of a company board. The head of a government agency is not equivalent to a CEO of private organisation. Departments of state cannot be equated to corporations.

When I read that a department of state such as Treasury has defined a role, call it mission whatever, that is in some way independent of the Department's true role in providing fair and independent advice to its minister and then in implementing the Government's wishes, I shudder.

You see, it can't work. It's actually left a vacuum in which the politicians spin like like weather cocks in the face of conflicting demands. Activity has been substituted for thought, reaction for reasoned response.

I am not talking about some perfect world. Political responses are always important. There will always be compromise. Agency structures will always change. Yet things are different.

In the simpler world of the past, the constant shifts of responsibilities between agencies was just a fact of live. All agencies operated under common rules. Those rules were over-complicated and prescriptive, mandating things as small as the office size or carpet squares for different levels. However, they did provide a common framework that facilitated changes to administrative structures.

The rules changed as they had too. Agencies were given more freedom, senior officials more management discretion. Driven in part by the craze for standards based approach and for documentation (protocols, manuals, procedures etc), one side effect was the proliferation of different systems across agencies. I am not talking just about IT systems, but the whole proliferation from HR through style manuals to project management methodologies through records management and so on.

These new systems became increasingly prescriptive. Increasingly, they became computer embedded. The old system with its acts, regulations and general orders had been replaced by a new complicated system dependent on computing and communication systems for its maintenance and enforcement. 

Today, the CEO of the new agency, and especially the new mega agencies created because we believe that big is better, seeks as soon as possible to integrate all systems and approaches, all visual presentation, into a common whole.

The costs are substantial, the gains often limited.

Within the private sector, one of the recognised problems associated with takeovers or mergers lies in the difficulties created by different and incompatible computer systems. The costs involved in over-coming this can be so high as to either prevent the takeover in the first place or significantly reduce the expected benefits if the takeover does proceed. In the public sector, you have to add the costs of standardising all the administrative and other process systems including the proliferating requirement for reporting.

As a simple example, consider HR policies.

Say that you have five or six policies all with a common base dictated by central rules in that jurisdiction (these central rules themselves have become more complex), but also some variations reflecting the particular circumstances of agencies.

To standardise, and this may be an absolute requirement because it is necessary for the working of the central computer system in the new agency, a team has to be formed to go line by line through the various policies trying identify commonalities and differences and then define a common policy. Other work is then required to alter IT systems to support the new policy.

Replicate this process across multiple policies, processes and systems  and you suddenly get a feel as to costs. Now add to this the impact of constant change in administrative structures and you can see why delivery performance might degrade.

At Federal level in Australia, the Government has chosen to use what we might call a matrix approach.

Each minister has a portfolio. It used to be the case that portfolios represented what we might think of as functional areas. However, political necessity as well as policy desires have led to what I think of as bitsy portfolios. Each portfolio has a bit of this, a bit of that. These bits are shifted each time the ministry changes.

   We also have a situation where ministers or parliamentary secretaries are given responsibilities in other portfolios. We want to promote Fred, but Mary will be upset, so we add a few things to Mary's responsibilities.

It used to be the case that form followed function. That is no longer true, or at least not to the same extent. 

Practicality dictates that there be some relationship between structures and function, but beyond that we have something of a crazy patch-work quilt that can be difficult to understand. This then mandates a matrix approach in an attempt to integrate all the different responsibilities.

So far so good, perhaps. But add to this the fact that Australia is a Federal system in which each jurisdiction has followed the same path and you get a further set of problems.

In a Federal system in which the centre has been increasingly exerting control, integration is important. But you try integrating seven different ever changing matrices. I don't think that it can be done!

In concluding, I want to link the point I have just made back to earlier points in the discussion.

It used to be the case, and to a degree still is, that the public service provided stability and continuity.

By their very nature, policy and programs have a long footprint. If you analyse the Rudd and Gillard Governments, you will find that 90 plus per cent of their policy and program activities are in fact an extension of the Howard Government, just as the Howard Government was an extension of the Hawke-Keating period. Yet the administrative and advisory systems that once provided the required continuity have become less effective.

I think that that's a key reason why Ms Gillard is in trouble.     


Rod said...

I'm just looking at the parallels with the Sydney government we have in NSW. I became a public servant with a department known as DLWC (which had recently changed its name from CALM - which was anything but calm at the time!). Soon, it became DSNR (for few weeks and losing some aspects of Water) which included Fisheries, and parts of the EPA and Soil Conservation, then because the Director General had another department (Planning) it became DIPNR. I left the department when part was spit off to form the regional CMAs with more roles included from the then DEC (formally EPA, now including National Parks and Wildlife). At this time Lands was split off too and was reamalgamated, along with fisheries into the new DPI (which also included Mineral Resources - formally mines and Energy). I went to Queenland for several years and when I returned all had again changed. I have no idea what or where my old department now is... I think it is divvied up between Industry and Investment (formally DPI), OEH (Formally DECC, DEC, EPA and National Parks) and the CMAs (which still exist!).

The cost of change, doesn't stop the political elite from throwing the pack of cards into the air and seeing where they fall.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting case study, Rod. It rather does make my point!