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Community programs done best by lower-level operators

Some commentators claim that the problems with the home insulation program prove that the Commonwealth government is not good at service delivery or program implementation. It is a spurious generalisation.

Implementation risks are very different depending on the type of program concerned. Some types of program the Commonwealth implements very well indeed. Especially, anything involving collecting or distributing money. The ATO and Centrelink are regular finalists in the Prime Minister’s awards for public sector excellence for good reason — they perform well.

Programs based on fair, consistent and uniform application across the country suit national governments. National regulation or standards are cases in point. However, programs that deliver particular services to communities tend to be better carried out at lower levels.

The design principle underlying this approach, adopted by the Council of Australian Governments, is subsidiarity: functions should be done by the lowest level of government with the ability to deal with them. Subsidiarity is not an argument simply for devolution- - there is no good case for giving a lower level of government responsibilities that it cannot carry out effectively. So in practice the principle depends on judgements as to how well each level of government can perform.

I have commented in the Canberra Times’ Public Sector Informant magazine (not available online) that Commonwealth public servants tend to be suspicious of the capabilities of other levels of government. The legacy of decades of unco-operative federalism is hard to escape. Every well-publicised failing by a state government is taken as confirmation of their ineffectiveness.

Similarly, many Canberra public servants’ views of local government are conditioned by little more than reported scandals and memories of Bill Hunter as mayor of Porpoise Spit in Muriel’s Wedding. There are 565 local government bodies in Australia; statistically, some will be bound to fall short, and some to perform extraordinarily well. Local government does have capacity constraints — especially in remote areas, smaller budgets, fewer people and less opportunity to achieve economies of scale — but nevertheless performs numerous functions well.

In practice, if state, territory and local governments avoid accountability because they lack openness and transparency, or are unresponsive to voters, then the subsidiarity principle breaks down. If they have centralised structures remote from local communities, it’s no different in terms of service delivery principles from the function being performed out of Canberra.

Commonwealth concerns about the abilities of lower levels of government are hard to overcome for some such states. This means that the Commonwealth needs alternative structures of responsibility that align the locations of the deliverers of service and the people affected. The insulation program shows what can happen otherwise — problems that happen locally will be suddenly sheeted home nationally.

Programs that deliver services to communities tend to be better carried out at lower levels for good reason: the people affected can have a greater say in influencing the government responsible. In principle, this builds in self-managing accountability if the people affected by the program deal with the government decision makers directly and daily, then the delivery will better suit their needs.

That puts the proposal for local hospital networks in context — for the kind of services delivered by hospitals, local responsiveness will mean better delivery. That is not the end of it — local structures need constant attention to ensure they remain local, transparent and free of corruption, and open to views of the communities they serve.

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