Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Economics and Management Review 12 Feb 09.

This post reviews some of the economics, management and professional issues that have interested me over the last week.

The announcement of the opening in Australia of UK law firm (here and here) interested me because of the sheer size of the raid (14 partners) on Australian national firm Clayton Utz. While I don't expect A&O's opening to have the same impact on the Australian marketplace for legal services as some of the breathless commentary would suggest (the story made the front page of Australia's Financial Review, for example, with supporting material later), it is still an interesting development.

I spoke of the troubles affecting Australian environment minister Garrett in Insulation, pressure cookers and Minister Garrett.

While the problems that have arisen in the national home insulation scheme are in fact an example of the type of systemic problems that I have been talking about in current public administration, I am more sympathetic to Minister Garrett than you might expect. The genesis of the trouble lay in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Canberra at the time the scheme was developed, decided and first rolled out, a time when people feared an economic Armageddon.

Just looking at the economic stimulus side of the package, this one pumped money into employment far more quickly than any of us (me included) expected. The very speed of take-up was central to later problems.

Unfortunately, one outcome is likely to be a reinforcement of concerns about risk as opposed to risk management. I still see this as a major impediment to improved management, especially in the fish-bowl world of the public sector.

This links to the post I wrote on Will proposed international bank regulations cost all Australians?.

Most business people are worried about the increasing burden of regulatory compliance. There are two different types of costs here. One are the transaction costs directly associated with compliance. Apart from costs to individual firms, the higher the proportion of national resources tied up in this, the lower the proportion available for directly productive activities. The net result is reduced growth. The second costs are those that flow from distortions to the market place and economic activity more generally.

My problem with the proposed international bank regulations lay in the possibility that they might increase interest rates, while actually increasing sector vulnerability, I accept that this was based on very simple, some may say simplistic, analysis. Still, it at least there is a basis there for further thought.

Monday in Problems with computer lock-in I looked at some of the effects of what I call computer lock-in, the way in which past investment in IT and all the systems based on It could adversely affect economic performance. This discussion was triggered by question on an earlier post by one of my old Commonwealth Public Service colleagues Winton Bates, formerly a senior official with the Australian Productivity Commission.

Winton suggested that I should look at some of the later material on institutional economics for another economic explanation of some of the things that I have been talking about. As I admitted to Winton, I am very out of touch here, but he has given me some leads to follow up to re-educate myself.

One of the points I made about IT and communications technology is the way they could facilitate cost shifting as compared to cost reduction. Your costs go down, but this is actually at the expense of someone else, often the customer. Measured by cash and opportunity costs for all, overall system costs may not fall at all and may even increase. 

In the commercial case, this type of cost shifting may yield immediate profits after taking into account any adjustment costs. However, the sustainability of the profit then depends upon customer and competitor response. Where customers make some gain, then they are more likely to accept the costs and frustrations involved.

A related problem is that one set of costs can be seen and measured, the other less so. This can be a significant public policy problem, for in cost shifting associated with the delivery of centralised services you have defined gains to the taxpayer on one side, sometimes hidden if unmeasured costs to taxpayers on the other. The issue is further complicated.

I became interested in the Bellingen Hospital case because I noticed a new Facebook page Tuesday this week. I have been interested for quite some time in the way that different social networking tools can be used and the dynamics associated with them. In this case, an un-official Save Bellingen Hospital Page was started Tuesday morning asking people to say why the Hospital should be saved. By the time I noticed it later that day,  it had already gathered over 200 fans.

To provide some background information, Bellingen is a small town on the New South Mid North coast with a population a bit under 3,000. Health authorities are considering closing certain service there requiring people to travel instead to the bigger Coffs Harbour hospital. This is a bit over half an hour away from Bellingen by road.

I know Bellingen quite well, was sympathetic and very interested in the comments. So on Thursday morning I wrote a sympathetic supporting story about it on my New England Australia regional blog, Bellingen organises to save hospital. By this morning, the Facebook page had 812 fans, and I followed up with a second story,  Bellingen Hospital, Facebook and the costs to the community, looking at some of the community cost issues.

These are the type of cost issues that are generally not measured. One side effect - and this is not unique to Australia -  is the way that service centralisation has in fact had a quite devastating on the economic and social life of many smaller communities.

    As I finish, the number of fans on the Save Bellingen Hospital Facebook Page has just reached 1,046.

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