06/08/2009 - 00:00

Time to talk about governments’ role

06/08/2009 - 00:00


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A recent discussion paper throws up some good questions about what we expect from government.

I HAD a fascinating, though brief, conversation recently with an expatriate businessman about the differences between Australian society and that in the US.

One of the key differences, he suggested, was that Australians expect services from their governments and, when they don't deliver, they kick them out of office.

By contrast, he said Americans don't believe governments can do anything, so the level of state-provided services is less of an issue.

This is an interesting observation about which I have mixed feelings.

There are a lot of strengths about the way our community is governed but this insight actually caused some concern for me; and it was highlighted by last week's discussion paper released by the state government's Economic Audit Committee.

This discussion paper throws up some enormous questions for all of us about what we expect from government.

The very first example it provides is that the proportion of patients seen on time in Western Australia's public hospital emergency departments (64 per cent in 2006-07) remains below the national figure (70 per cent).

It then talked about elective surgery delays, before moving into the next most contentious issue, education, where WA has the second highest recurrent spend per student, yet performs poorly on numerous measures.

We then move on to the cost of police and then indigenous housing. The key theme here is the hysteria that often surrounds these subjects, rising towards the end of the electoral cycle.

The committee has rightly focused on these issues. Whether we like it or not, they are the constant and never-ending source of complaints used by oppositions of any hue to pummel governments until, you guessed it, the voters seek a change. Then the process starts again.

This is the process the expat businessman was talking about.

The problem is, booting people out of office doesn't appear to change anything.

Oppositions create rods for their own back by focusing on government failure in these areas for electoral gain. By doing so they imply they have the answers to solve these problems, even though they rarely do. Instead, they end up throwing more good money after bad trying to wash away ridiculous promises in a sea of taxpayer-funded cash.

It seems to me the point the committee is trying to make is that higher spending doesn't create better outcomes.

What creates better outcomes is an organisation - be it government or private - that is goal-focused, one that has outcomes in mind and a way of measuring progress towards them.

That is a cultural shift that the Economic Audit Committee is suggesting when you read the subtext underneath its six key themes.

- Delivering on priorities.

- Services to meet citizens' needs.

- Maximising value through planning, competition and innovation.

- Realising WA's economic potential.

- Modernising the public sector.

- Making change happen.

For me, cultural change includes being able to think differently and break away from traditional ways of doing things - a massive challenge in the two enormous areas of bureaucracy that cost the most, health and education.

As we spend more than a $1 billion on a new hospital, I have to ask whether we have really thought through the long-term cost of medical services and whether the government needs to be managing these at all.

The same thing appears to be occurring in education, where billions in stimulus funding is directed at building buildings, not where the true value in education lies - the quality of teachers.

As an aside, I was surprised to see some research floated at an event by think tank Mannkal that suggested much of the effort to reduce the number of students per classroom during the last 30 years has failed.

By lowering the number of students per teacher we have significantly increased the number of teachers needed. That means despite the rising cost of education there is actually less money to spend per teacher. The result may be that we are scaring away good teachers by underpaying those who could quite easily accommodate bigger classes.

I believe it is important to challenge thinking that has become entrenched, especially when it clearly isn't working and, in respect of this, I note that the committee asks a number of difficult questions, which is laudable.

It specifically asks what opportunities there are to introduce more competition from the private and not-for-profit sectors into public service delivery?

This is valid question, though you have to wonder why a Liberal government needs to ask this question 10 months after an election. Surely, this is off-the-shelf policy for a conservative party.

I will be intrigued about what submissions are received. Will it be more of the safe outsourcing of backroom, clerical, cleaning and administrative roles? What about education? Could we see ourselves inviting NFPs to run schools in our state system?

Disappointingly, I didn't see any direct mention of privatisation.

This may be lurking there indirectly but it's surprising it doesn't rate a mention. One especially good way to change public sector culture is to privatise it.

In Queensland, the Labor government has embarked upon a major privatisation program to try to reduce debt. I don't have a personal privatisation agenda but I'm sure there are dozens of things private organisations could do - and would even buy their way into.

Admittedly, now might not be the time to embark on such a program. Nevertheless, a financial downturn might be an appropriate time to talk about it.

Returning to my conversation with the expatriate businessman, seeking renewal through change does not have to mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Australian system isn't broken, as the global financial crisis has proved, but that doesn't mean we can't innovate to make sure we continue to have the best of what the world has to offer.

Let's just hope we can do that before the next election.



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