Aug 31, 2012

The costs and rewards of devolving public service functions

In contrast to Labor, the Coalition is thinking about alternatives to current ways of doing bureaucratic business.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The Coalition has sent two signals lately around its approach to public administration if it wins government. The first, which received greater attention, related to the warm welcome extended to UK "Big Society" advocate Phillip Blond when he visited two weeks ago. Blond visited last year as well, and on both occasions met with senior Liberals. Blond's "Big Society" centres around the notion of empowering local communities to deliver services, rather than government. The problem is, it's been taken up with gusto by David Cameron’s Coalition government in the UK and used as the pretext for extensive cuts to services in the aid of meeting George Osborne’s austerity targets. Blond's defenders argue it's not his fault his thinking has been exploited to justify cuts in services, and his ideas merit evaluation outside the context of Cameron's government. Blond's thinking appeared to inform Tony Abbott’s "Plan for Stronger Communities" released in June, in which he emphasised "empowered communities" over "empowered government". The second related but separate signal came from Andrew Robb last week when he spoke about shifting oversight and administration of Commonwealth programs to the states. He spoke of a gradual process, working with co-operative state governments to hand responsibility for programs using Commonwealth money to the states, freeing up the Commonwealth to significantly reduce the number of public servants dedicated to running and overseeing programs. This is significantly at odds with Abbott's most strident position in Battlelines, in which he argued the federal government should override the states and take direct control of every area it turns its collective mind to, aided by a constitutional amendment that would remove any fetter on Commonwealth power. Then again, Battlelines was written while every state government was Labor and had frustrated the Howard government in areas like Abbott's health portfolio. With all the major state governments now conservative and Abbott looking like the next Prime Minister, Abbott’s centralism has conveniently vanished. But the Coalition, at least, appears to be thinking about public service delivery with less resources, at a point where, according to today's Australian Financial Review, Labor is gearing up for yet another additional efficiency dividend on the public service to spare its fiscal blushes. Apart from the obvious issue that Robb's devolution of management and oversight is dependent on a co-operative relationship between federal and state governments, and thus prone to being overturned the moment an election changes a government, there's a more substantial problem or two with it. Imagine a devolved Commonwealth program, being managed by a state -- or even one of Abbott's "little platoons" of community-based service deliverers -- which goes bad: say there’s a 3% complaint rate about it, or some shonky private contractor cuts corners, resulting in people being injured or killed. In what world does anyone think it will be politically acceptable for the relevant federal minister to stand up in question time and say: "don't look at me, it's an issue for the XXX state government or the YYY volunteers' association"? Or to plead they don't have information about the scandal because state bureaucrats -- who have no interest in assisting a minister in another jurisdiction unless their own minister's office is breathing down their necks -- haven't yet provided it to her? If it's federal money, it's federal responsibility, regardless of who is administering it. Federal ministers will be expected to be accountable. That's why, as Robb says, much of the existing Commonwealth public service primarily functions to "leave a paper trail, to cover backsides". What he omits is that it's political backsides being covered, not bureaucrats', who don't have to get up in question time or face the media when programs go awry. Robb's proposal thus needs a different type of politician, and a more mature public debate, in which we can talk sensibly about program implementation and accountability and politicians can resist the urge to exercise complete control over anything that may come back to bite them. It may also afford the pretext for governments to abandon key regulatory functions that they wouldn't necessarily want to publicly repeal. Imagine the Commonwealth handing environmental regulation to Campbell Newman after he has cut several hundred jobs from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines. Environmental protection, while legislated at the Commonwealth and state level, would be a dead letter due to a dearth of anyone to enforce it. But the Coalition, which normally talks the talk on "small government" but finds walking the walk politically inconvenient, at least is looking at the problem that 22 million Australians are hideously overgoverned and that key areas of public spending that are shared between levels of government -- education and health, most significantly -- are accompanied by elaborate bureaucratic structures designed to cover arses both in Canberra and in the relevant state capital. In lieu of abolishing the states, there can only ever be partial, and temporary, fixes. But there are potentially significant rewards, especially given health is a priority area for identifying greater efficiencies. Labor's approach, meanwhile, seems to be to simply slap another cut on the public service.

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139 thoughts on “The costs and rewards of devolving public service functions

  1. Migraine

    Devolved responsibility a la Blond and Abbott sounds like a recipe for atomisation and alienation, further undermining people’s sense of community and doing even less for the idea of a ‘nation’.

  2. SBH

    It’s difficult to see how Robb’s proposal could be implemented without costing a lot more. Centralisation, whatever its ills, creates economies of scale that would start to fragment if pushed down to the states and territories to seperatly administer.

    And it’s equally difficult to believe anyone in Canberra doesn’t know that the first thing every premier, regardless of party, will ask – ‘where’s the money?’ and they’ll want more than they got before.

  3. rossmcg

    “Imagine a devolved Commonwealth program, being managed by a state — or even one of Abbott’s “little platoons” of community-based service deliverers — which goes bad: say there’s a 3% complaint rate about it, or some shonky private contractor cuts corners, resulting in people being injured or killed.”

    we don’t have to imagine … it only took 1 second for the case of the aboriginal elder in WA who died after being transported through the WA outback in an unairconditioned prison van by a private contractor. Ok that was a State government outsourcing but it is the perfect example of what happens when governments abrogate their responsibilities and had out the work to companies who put profit first.

  4. wilful

    All of the “pink batts deaths” could honestly be sheeted home to State OH&S regulation. All of the “school halls rorts” from teh BER could reliably be attributed to State education departments. That never stopped the coalition in Federal Parliament.

  5. Peter Ormonde

    Oh dear … here we go again. Those of us with more elephantine memories might recall Fraser’s “New Federalism” … funneling Commonwealth funds through all those totally responsible and more accountable States and the feds stepping back from the pointy end of responsibility.

    The result: a sprawling slow train wreck of a policy with services being increasingly unequal depending on lines drawn on maps. Queensland’s schools, NSW hospitals… all different, all failing, and the notion of equality of opportunity and living standards for Australians went out the window.

    Actually having watched the NSW Public Service up close, I have few issues with O’Barrell’s plans to set to the behemoth with a chainsaw … failed managements in roads, housing, health, education and community service… a failed State in terms of meeting public expectations and dealing with challenges of the 21st century. But I suspect O’Barrell will simply grab the cash – the temptation is overwhelming. It’s what happened with Fraser’s new federalism as well.

    Pity really – something really needs to change – but I don’t think importing our recycled failed ideas from the English will really help too much… just less and less and less. Pity. We could do with some decent imaginative policies and programs here. But we’d need politicians with a commitment to delivering results beyond securing preselections.

    When will someone start talking about really solving the problem and abolishing these absurd bureaucratic fiefdoms called the States?

  6. Suzanne Blake

    The richest suburb in Australia in terms of income per caita as per the census was in Canberra region.

    Jerrabomberra just across border in NSW.

    Wonder why?

    Public Servants nest there.

    Bet it will be No 1 in 2016.

  7. Peter Ormonde

    See what I mean Jimmy… just trash.

    Here’s some decent numbers: http://www.smartcompany.com.au/economy/20110729-revealed-australia-s-top-50-richest-suburbs.html

    They just make stuff up.

    I’m off for a shower now – just makes me feel a bit greasy reading this sludge.

  8. Peter Ormonde

    Jimmy, here’s another one… slightly better: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/in-search-of-the-new-rich/story-e6frgabx-1226450654336

    Ignorant, dumb and lazy. Not interested in facts. They just “know” … it has the feel of “truthiness” to it – and that’s enough.

    Now leave them alone and let them wither away on the edges of the world they so desperately try and attach themselves to…. the real one.

  9. Suzanne Blake

    IT’S always been regarded as a nice place to live, but 2011 census data has revealed Jerrabomberra has the highest median weekly …

    google it

    highest median weekly earnings as they define it

  10. Oscar Jones

    Blond’s stale and predictable theory is simply Thatcherism/Blairism and the Coalition devoid of real ideas is bound to lap it up.

    Thatcher proclaimed local councils could deal with the homeless rather than the government. This isn’t a policy, it’s an abrogation of duty and passing the buck.

    The result is what we see today in Britain : a massive decline in community housing (where the opposite is happening throughout Europe) and the transfer of taxpayer’s money to private hands, landlords housing the homeless for profit, an inevitable boom and bust cycle in housing costs.

    Exampled by how Britain now hands out billions$$ in housing subsidies even to the working poor, thus supplementing a generation of would be property developers and a problem they cannot solve : cut back on housing subsidies and property prices will collapse.

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