Friday, November 13, 2009

The case for reform in Australian public policy – a methodological note

Now that I have started this series, I have been thinking about the difficulties involved in demonstrating beyond doubt the need for change in approaches to public administration and public policy. We can see this if we look at my preliminary posts.

My focus to this point has been on unforeseen consequences, although other issues are already creeping in.

Consider the NSW child welfare case.

I have no doubt that the near collapse of the system as a consequence of mandatory reporting was unforeseen. No Government in its right mind would deliberately inflict such pain on itself. But could the result have been foreseen? After all, unforeseen results are common in public policy. I actually think that it could have been checked through the normal practical operational analysis that should be done in advance of such changes.

Whether this case was unforeseeable or simply unforeseen does not, of itself, support my case that there is a systemic problem that crosses Australian jurisdictions and requires major change to overcome. A few case studies does not make a case. They may be isolated examples of failure. Rather, I have to show that there is a pattern of behaviour and of results.

In doing so, I have to disentangle, categorise and simplify, a variety of interacting variables.

Staying with the unforeseen case, there is a difference between an unforeseen and an adverse effect. An unforeseen effect could in fact be positive. An adverse effect may not be really unforeseen. A Government may argue that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, that the illegal detention of Australian citizens is a price worth paying to protect our borders. In this event, we have a new set of arguments. Did we in fact want an omelet? Did we have to break the eggs? Could we have achieved the same result in a different way?

I also have a problem in explaining how things work to a lay reader who does not understand the system and may indeed be part of the problem!

In demanding that the Tasmanian Government link drivers licenses to school attendance, the Tasmanian opposition obviously felt that it was playing to public opinion. The rise of issues politics, the increasing tendency to play too often short term public reactions, is one of the core reasons why we now have a systemic public policy problem.

I will be discussing this a little later in the series, again using case studies to illustrate my points. For the moment, I simply note that it adds to the difficulties in bringing about real change.

Postscript on drivers licenses

Just a personal postscript on the drivers license issue.

Youngest is working part time at the airport in Sydney, starting at 5.30am. This morning she drove.

Both daughters started to learn to drive under the fifty hour regime. When the NSW Government changed the rules from 50 to 120 hours, those who already had their learner's permits stayed on the old regime, but had to acquire their license within a certain time frame.

Eldest busy with university, sport and an active social life let her permit lapse. With parents, public transport and boyfriends with licenses, she did not need to drive herself. Now she is on the 120 hour regime, regrets not moving forward, but is kind of stuck for the present.

There is still a boy thing about cars in that boys are more likely to make the effort. In a very odd way, this has reinforced an old gender stereotype, boys who drive, girls who are driven.

On the way to the airport I asked youngest how many hours she now had up. She said twenty two. She has to get to fifty and her provisional license by 21 December or go onto the 120 hours. So there is now a fair bit of pressure.

At twenty two hours and expressed in skill terms, youngest is not ready yet to get her license. She can drive without turning my already grey hair greyer, but the skills aren't automatic.

Part of her problem is that her driving practice has been sporadic. As she said, you have to do it in solid blocks. A second problem is that she is learning on a manual.

On the way to the airport, I told her about the attempted car-jacking that failed because those doing it could not drive a manual - see A problem with gears. She laughed, and said that she must tell her friends, all of whom are learning on automatics.

Under the old regime, you got your license and then drove without restriction. There were a lot of crashes in my age group because people could drive, but actually pushed outside the envelope set by their skill sets and judgement. We now have quite restrictive provisional license requirements intended to address this problem.

In theory, the whole system was meant to be output (skills) focused. Once you got to a certain skills point, then you got you license. However, there were then restrictions on what you could do for a period to allow skills to build through practice.

In practice, the whole system has become quite rigidly time and input based. It is now actually easier and a lot quicker to get an unrestricted pilots license than a NSW drivers license.

Note to readers:

This is one of a month long series on the need for reform in Australia's approach to public policy and administration.

Consider yourself the judge or jury as I present the evidence. Most posts will be short, introductions to other writing. My argument is that we now have a systemic pattern of failure. You have to decide whether or not I am right and, if so, what you think that we should do about it.

If you want to follow the whole series through, you can click reforming Australian public policy on the side bar. This will bring the whole series up. Alternatively, if you want to follow the whole series through from the first post, click here and then click next at the end of each post.


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