Saturday, September 06, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings - Jennifer Westacott's nostrums

Back in August, Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott delivered a speech on the importance of innovation in the public sector. This resulted in somewhat stinging response from Paddy Gourley: 'Innovation' snake oil and other business cant: Jennifer Westacott's unwanted advice.

Mr Gourley has his own biases. They come through clearly. Still, he makes some valid points.

In her paper, Ms Westacott says in part:
The fundamental value proposition in the public sector context is better outcomes: 
services that are easier to use

  • regulation that empowers rather than impedes
  • a better customer experience
  • better value for money for the taxpayer
  • The greatest challenge in a highly constrained public spending environment is to extend the value afforded by the dollars we spend.
Can you spot what’s missing here? There is absolutely no context: there is no reference to the role of the public sector in providing advice; there is no reference to politics, minsters and the nature of our democratic system; there is no understanding of roles. The public sector does the best it can, but it operates in a highly constrained environment.  Ms Westacott refers to a highly constrained public spending environment, but it’s a little more than that.

The public sector has many different roles. Each of those roles has different dynamics. Each needs to be addressed separately, if within a unifying framework that starts with the role of Parliament, of Government, of ministers.

Consider the first dot point, regulation that empowers rather than impedes. Who is finally responsible for regulation? I guess it depends on just what regulation and what indeed is meant by regulation. Still, in the end it is ministers and governments who actually set the framework here. Those are the audiences that Ms Westacott must address if she wishes to achieve her first point. It has little to do with either management or public administration.

Turn now to better value for money for the tax payer. There is an obvious definitional point in term of what we mean by better value for money. Leave that aside, from my experience most public servants are concerned with better value for money. I am constantly astonished by their commitment. But they can only do so within their scope and also have to cope with increasingly complex and burdensome policies, processes and procedures.

If Ms Westacott really wanted to make a difference she would focus on simplification. How do we reduce administrative overhead, break the bounds of command and control systems? 

If Ms Westacott really wanted to make a difference, she would focus on structures and decisions at the top within the bounds set by our Westminster system. What has happened to the role of the minister? Is she or he just a cipher within an increasingly presidential system?

If Ms Westacott really wanted to make a difference, she would say how do we maintain innovation and creativity within increasingly cash constrained mega-agencies where everything is centralised?

Each day, I hear public servants say things like this: that’s very silly; how do we change it to minimise the effects on our clients?

Each day, I hear public servants say things like this: we have to deliver; how do we keep business as usual going given these changes?

Each day, I hear public servants saying go with the flow, do as you are told. It’s silly, but we can’t change things.
There is a very old saying: the fish rots from the head.

For over 20 years Ms Westacott, and I quote from her CV, “occupied critical leadership positions in the New South Wales and Victorian governments. She was the Director of Housing and the Secretary of Education in Victoria, and most recently was the Director-General of the New South Wales Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources.”

To my mind, Ms Westacott is part of the problem. I accept that this may well be unfair. I accept that her speech was delivered to a particular audience in a particular context.  I am sure that she did many good things in her official roles. Yet in her speech there is nothing that will actually help. It seem to me to be a set of nostrums set within an intellectual framework that has already failed.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like she and Gourley could both do with one of those new age workshops in self awareness - as I guess we all could :) That Christensen/Lepore episode: was sure I had raised this with you a month or so back? I found Lepore's viewpoint most interesting.

Anyway, am more in agreement with Gourley and yourself than Westacott on this, so I hope she doesn't just dismiss his response.


Jim Belshaw said...

You did indeed raise it, kvd. I picked it up in June -

Evan said...

There was a talk on RN's Big Ideas a few months ago on the difference between public service and other sectors. I can't remember the name for the life of me. But it pointed out that it has a different value proposition to private companies. Which Ms Westacott doesn't seem to understand.

There are alternatives to bureaucratic organisation. But this isn't even on the public radar I think. Which means that we end up with the fix for excessive managerialism being more management.

I have no difficulty at all believing that Ms Westacott was and is part of the problem.

Rod said...

Ahhh the Public Service without having politicians involved. How nice that would be. We might be able to actually do what Westacott suggests.

My latest bureaucratic Nirvana moment (last week) revealed that I needed a new approval (the old one expired because of a different time frame required by a local council). The approval was to allow logging of exotic plants from a section of council owned land.

Interestingly, the approval to clear the exotic plants was required under the Native Vegetation Protection act 1997... which has been repealed after the introduction of the Native Vegetation act 2003. However, transitional arrangements from the old 1997 to the new 2003 act were put in place by the minister. Alas the transitional arrangements are still in place even though it is longer than the actual time the 1997 act was in force anyway! (How long is a transitional arrangement before it becomes permanent?)

If that were not bad enough, just finding out who to get approval from is an issue. the 1997 act was administered by then DLWC which became DIPNR. the 2003 act was also administered by DIPNR. However, DIPNR no longer exists and is now in part LLS. BUT! LLS was not given responsibility for the 1997 act only the 2003 act. The EPA has responsibility for the 1997 act!

While talking to an EPA staff member he considered that the ministers transitional arrangements were "probably an afterthought" from the replacement of the 1997 act with the 2003 one.

An "afterthought" by a minister can have massive bureaucratic implications for years to come.

Anonymous said...

Love it Rod! Gave me the smile for the day. Sympathies, and best of luck.


Rod said...

I forgot to mention that Westacott was director of one of the agencies I was talking about (DIPNR).

Rod said...

Thanks for your sympathy kvd! If you watch the series Utopia that is running on the ABC at the moment take some time to pause and reflect on the show. It is more like a documentary than a comedy.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry when watching it because the resemblance to my everyday work is strikingly accurate (and absurd).

Jim Belshaw said...

That's rather a lovely story, Rod. Clearly our collective sympathies are with you!