LAURIE PATTON. Catch 22.0 – We wouldn’t need inquiries if public administration wasn’t so broken – UPDATED

Predictably, we are seeing calls for a Royal Commission into the bushfires that have Australia in crisis mode right now – either in the genuine hope of finding answers or finding someone to blame.

However, this is just the latest example of a systematic failure in public administration. Nobody is ever held accountable when things go wrong and seldom do formal inquiries lead to anything fundamentally worthwhile. That needs to change.

On ABC Insiders late last year host Fran Kelly asked health minister Greg Hunt why the Government didn’t have an immediate response ready on the aged care Royal Commission report just released. “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone, was it”, Ms Kelly observed with obvious frustration.No, it wasn’t. Not to anyone whose parents or friends have ended up in an aged care facility. Not to any politicians who have had their eyes open. And most certainly not to the highly paid bureaucrats in our federal and state health departments. Mr Hunt admitted that the Royal Commission had uncovered a culture in the aged care sector that “went beyond anything” he had anticipated. I’m literally frightened and frankly astounded that a health minister could be so out of touch.

So why do we need to keep having formal inquiries before anything is done about known problems in government administration and abject market failures? Problems that so dramatically impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged among us.

Widespread problems in aged care revealed in the Royal Commission have further exposed how ineffective our governments and their agencies have become. Any inquiry into the failure by federal and state governments to adequately prepare for this season’s bushfires will be pointless unless we demand that it lead to fundamental changes in how we are governed. Failing this it will be déjà vu all over again next time we face a national emergency!

These are just some of the areas and issues covered by recent government inquiries. I’ll leave it to others to determine what outcomes resulted from all the time, money and effort that went into them.

Age Pension Disability / NDIS Finance Sector
Banking Decriminalising Drugs Flammable Cladding
Building Industry Domestic Violence Mental Health
Child Care Education Murray-Darling River
Child Sexual Abuse Drought Management Religious Discrimination
Closing the Gap Emissions Reduction Uluru Statement
Corruption Family Court Water Management

As I’ve observed before, people died as a result of the so-called ‘Pink Batts’ scheme. Not because the concept was flawed but because state government agencies responsible for OH&S failed to ensure that proper safety standards were being applied by the companies well-paid to do the installations. And because nobody in the federal bureaucracy made sure this issue was being dealt with by the states.

In 2010 I was a member of an expert panel that carried out a review of the federal government’s investment in the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector. This review was headed by former senior public servant Neville Stevens. We undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal communities across the country and delivered around 30 recommendations. The report called for a range of changes, including many that simply required administrative action and did not involve the appropriation of new funding. Bugger all happened. The public servant in charge of this policy area was later promoted and now heads up a major government authority.

The problem isn’t new of course. As a young public servant fresh out of university I was given some career advice by an old hand with decades of experience. The message was simple. You’ll never get into strife for not making a decision. But make the wrong one and you might. Proceed with caution (AKA, don’t rock the boat).

Former Prime Minister and Cabinet department head Terry Moran has opined that the public service is so lacking in expertise these days he wouldn’t trust it “with organising a collection of funds to build the local church”. The stuff flows downhill, as the saying goes, so we need to ponder how we’ve ended up with a bunch of politicians so many of whom seem to have little idea about the lives of the people they are elected to represent and even less interest in finding out.

Making other people’s lives better is what politicians and bureaucrats are ultimately there for surely? It’s not called the public service for nothing.

Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive. This article, since updated, first appeared in The Lucky General.


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4 Responses to LAURIE PATTON. Catch 22.0 – We wouldn’t need inquiries if public administration wasn’t so broken – UPDATED

  1. George Cloughley says:

    Excellent and thought provoking article from Laurie Patton.
    Politicians will argue that they are the democratically elected representatives and therefore have a mandate to push their agenda through and what right do public servants or anyone else have to oppose that agenda. Loyalty trumps critical thinking every time.
    Like many large organisations, the aim of a government and the Australian Public Service is to survive and flourish in an often hostile environment, but ‘A fish rots from the head’ and successive governments seem intent on removing any questioning or critical voices and turning the APS into an instrument to simply execute their usually untested party political agenda. In such an impoverished culture, not rocking the boat and deniability become key survival strategies and what could possibly go wrong?
    Unfortunately, the future is always unknown and uncertain and nobody can foresee the unintended consequences of a decision to change something. Change is not always improvement. However, in any competitive environment, doing nothing and stagnating is rarely a sucessful survival strategy. Eventually the competition get so far ahead that the only decision becomes when to capitulate.
    Rather than creating cultures which are fearful and resistant to change, in my view, in order to flourish, we need to create cultures which can learn to better manage decision making and continuous improvement under conditions of foreseeable future risks and any unforeseeable issues arising.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    How did we end up with pollies detached from the electorate?

    The development of a political class a.k.a. the professionalisation of politics.

  3. J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Laurie for this trenchant summary of a bad situation – Catch 22 indeed. The disaster that is public administration demands [as you say] that “…we need to ponder how we’ve ended up with a bunch of politicians so many of whom seem to have little idea about the lives of the people they are elected to represent and even less interest in finding out.” We now understand that careerism in politics can easily lead to such an outcome.

  4. Peter Small says:

    It is all so very depressing. Is another Royal Commission required to tell us what every fire Royal Commission has ever told us? And the indigenous Australians knew and effectively practiced.
    We have to reduce fuel loads in our forests, our National parks and along our country roads (roads are supposed to be designed for safe movement of people and goods; -they are not native bush reserves!
    Its much easier and satisfying for the political left to shout in a frenzy “its all Co2.” And so it might well be. Co2, increases plant growth so our forests are creating more growth, which implies the need for more fuel reduction; everywhere!

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