28/01/2010 - 00:00

Convoluted system all part of the service

28/01/2010 - 00:00


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The former Labor government may have created a bureaucratic monster.

OUR household received a bill from the state government this week.

It was for a little over $100, so it wasn’t going to break the bank, but it led to a small chain of events that has me wondering about the state’s back office and its ability to work effectively and efficiently.

This is not, I might add, a personal gripe. It is just the experience that I found slightly alarming.

Firstly the bill came from the Department of Treasury and Finance, not an agency our household would normally be dealing with. However, documentation showed the invoice was actually from the department’s Shared Services office.

Most readers would remember the concept introduced by the former Labor treasurer, Eric Ripper, which was to save the state huge amounts of money creating a giant department to manage administrative tasks such as payroll.

Needless to say, the implementation of shared services was messy and more costly than expected, and was still taking place when Labor lost government.

Now the Liberals have inherited it.

Treasurer Troy Buswell has decided to stick with it because it is too difficult to dismantle.

“Following the 2008 election I gave very serious consideration to holding the program in its current form or changing its scope,” Mr Buswell told state parliament about two months ago.

“However, given the already sunk costs, the contractual obligations and the results of an independent report that acknowledged the work already undertaken to turn the project around and recommended continuing reform, I approved the continuation of the program.

“This green light was conditional on roll-in dates being met and a rigorous approach being taken to project management and reporting to government.”

Returning to the invoice we received from the government, it simply stated that it was replacement invoice from another department.

There was no inkling in our household about what this could be about. The additional agency mentioned was not one that we could recall having any dealings with.

An email to the Department of Treasury and Finance-Shared Services enquiries section proved to be little help. We were told bluntly they didn’t know what it was for and that we should contact the agency directly. The email informed us the matter was now closed.

At this stage I think it’s worth mentioning to the government that voters just love receiving bills from departments that can’t tell you what they are for. It’s even better when the bureaucratic machine tells you to, in effect, bugger off and find out for yourself.

Thinking that, perhaps, the state had wrongly added our household details to someone else’s invoice, I decided it might just be a worthwhile journalistic exercise to use my valuable time tracking down the origins of this mystery invoice.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long to get the referred agency’s finance department and get something of an answer; and a polite one as well.

Part of the ease with which I got a response could be attributed to the fact that I was not the first person to call this agency with a bill query of this nature.

It seems that, at some stage in 2007, one member of our household trialled a program offered by the agency and, after one session, decided not to enrol. Household members who recall this distant event believe the single session was paid for. Of course, it’s hard to track down the details of petty, non-commercial transactions from three years ago. At the time, though, it appears the agency was satisfied with what happened. We have never, to our knowledge, received a bill for this (despite the wording of the Shared Services invoice calling it a “replacement”).

However, quite recently the agency in question appears to have handed over its debt collection role to Shared Services.

It seems that Shared Services did not totally agree with the agency’s finance department about what was owed or should have been written off. Instead, Shared Services appears to have more zealously created debtors where the agency had not.

As I suggested previously, I was not the first caller. The agency had received numerous other inquiries, creating a new workload for the finance department, presumably to fill the void left by offloading the debt collection role to Shared Services.

I was told one caller had last dealt with the agency in 2005.

So this is great work by the government bureaucracy. In trying to save money, they create work for other agencies and voters.

I wondered if this is a new agency trying prove its worth. Who knows, a few hundred dollars here and there from people who don’t question invoices from such a department might create a steady stream of new money.

Or is this a simply an attempt by the Department of Treasury and Finance to raise revenue in tight times? Is the state that desperate for revenue that they have to trawl over past interactions with voters and bill them for the privilege?

Does the voter get a bad credit reference or lose their driver’s licence if they can’t prove they don’t owe the money from three or even five years ago? Who keeps petty receipts for that long?

This is all great vote-winning stuff, especially, as I suspect, there are swags of people out there getting spurious invoices created on a whim by a new department trying to justify its existence.

Perhaps I am getting worked up over nothing, but my journalistic sense suggests there are plenty of households like mine receiving bills from the state generated out of thin air like some sort of Nigerian invoicing scam.

With building magnate Len Buckeridge threatening to fund court cases for every person whose housing approval has been delayed, maybe he could also consider helping out the victims of Shared Services bureaucracy. Imagine the chaos caused by lots of these petty matters going through the Small Claims Tribunal.

In the end, the amount involved is relatively trivial. It is, however, the way it was handled from the outset that has provided me with the 1,000 words for this column.

If bureaucrats can’t get this kind of interaction with the voting public right, perhaps this task should be contracted out to someone more accountable. We’ll see if the private sector can make it work properly.



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