Friday, October 24, 2008

Musings in the midst of economic downturn

I have just finished up-dating the reference posts at the end of an up-date post, Ken Henry, Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Government's bank deposit guarantee - issues arising, that I did yesterday on my personal blog on the evolving crisis in Australia's non-bank financial sector. Yesterday afternoon the total of frozen funds had reached $A5 billion. This morning the total appears around $A8.4 billion.

This crisis was triggered by the Government's bank guarantee package leading to a flight to safety. Federal Treasurer Swan may be right when he says other factors are involved, but the package was the proximate cause. The Government's response will probably be announced some time today.

Looking back over past posts, I decided that it might be worthwhile providing a summary of some of the linked themes that I have written on over the last three years. I am not going to provide links at this point. I simply want to capture the main elements.

As a former senior Commonwealth public servant who has also dealt extensively with Government from the other side of the fence, I have written a fair bit on public policy and public administration. One reason for doing so has been a growing feeling of discomfort at what I see as an increasingly mechanistic approach to public administration and policy including the mis-application of approaches that I once supported.

To understand the nature of the changes that had taken place I looked at the evolution of public administration since the second world war, pointing to the 1970s as the tip decade that marked the end of the old, the start of new approaches. I think that this is relevant today since we are at another such point.

In writing I pointed to the way in which new attitudes to the role of the state combined with new market based ideas and new approaches to management to create a new public administration/public policy orthodoxy. In doing so, I also tried to demonstrate that many of the new ideas in public administration were sub-sets of broader trends, including the rise of quantification and standards based approaches. In turn, these linked to the rise of performance measurement, key performance indicators and performance based bay.

I remain a supporter of many of the new approaches, but in their place. The problem now is that they have become deeply entrenched, internalised, and are in fact applied back to the private sector through law, regulation and Government procurement.

Much of my writing as a management professional has been concerned with nuts and bolts stuff, trying to help managers do their job better, to help firms manage and plan better. However, my increasing dissatisfaction with modern management, with what I see as short-sighted behaviour, with the importance of fashion, has led to a growing emphasis on a return to more old-fashioned management techniques. A return to basics.

This led one of my colleagues to comment on what he saw as an increasingly old-fashioned flavour to my management comments. Perhaps that's true, although I have also been trying to develop new thinking in areas such as the resilient organisation and evidence-based management, although these too are in danger of becoming fashions. Certainly the old-fashioned tag is dangerous for some-one who is getting older!

Whatever the case may be, I find it increasingly difficult in advising, in trying to bring in new approaches, to hold my tongue when I know that things won't work. Perhaps it is time to wear the old-fashioned tag with pride?

The professional areas in which I work are themselves sub-sets of broader society. As a strategist and social commentator I am fascinated by the processes of social and cultural change. Here some of my recent writing has focused on two main, linked, themes.

The first is the growing aversion in society to risk, the belief that risk can be controlled, that adverse outcomes must be prevented by regulation or law. This is both dumb and dangerous. Risks can be managed, they cannot be controlled. To think otherwise creates a recipe for failure.

The second theme is the burden of compliance costs. In trying to avoid risk, we not only limit individual freedom to do things, we also create an economic burden that is now (to my mind) more than we can afford.

I have written about these issues in economic, management and public policy contexts. To take a public policy example, child welfare policy in NSW is a mess. In our desire to avoid things such as child molestation, we have created structures including mandatory reporting that are no longer workable. Those struggling to deliver in such systems finally give up.

More broadly, a fair bit of my writing is concerned with longer term issues.

I do not believe that one can forecast the future. There are just too many variables, the interactions are too complex. However, it is possible to identify trends, to develop frameworks, that assist understanding of the present as well as planning for the future.

This is not always easy to get across in a world dominated by activity based short term targets. To illustrate by example.

The impact of demographic change and especially the aging of populations in many western countries has been known for some time. In similar vein, the feminisation of the professions has been a feature for a number of years, as has the changing attitudes of staff to work.

For at least the last eight years I have been arguing that firms need to consider these trends in business and work force planning. Only now as these trends bite at operational level are organisations starting to take them into account. For some, the price will be high as they scrabble for workers in an increasingly competitive environment.

It may sound odd to you to be saying this at a time of economic downturn. In fact, this is just the time to be considering long term issues.

The downturn will pass. As it does, the core underlying trends will emerge with added force. Those firms that survived but who have focused on the short term may not survive the upturn.

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