The deeper issues behind the repeated failure of our nation’s critical service delivery

May 23, 2022
An illustration depicting socially diverse, multicultural, multi generational men, women, children inclusive of disability
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With the recent floods devastating communities across Queensland and New South Wales and government responses criticised as being ill-timed and inadequate, now is the time to scrutinise the deeper issues behind the repeated failure of our nation’s critical service delivery systems in relation to planning for, responding to and navigating beyond crises.

The floods have been likened to the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, but a similar and more pertinent thread can be seen to run through our public institutional responses to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the challenges posed by the Omicron variant, deep issues in our aged care system, and the administration and delivery of other service systems.

Blame, and the subsequent loss of faith in government more broadly, is often focussed on individual elected leaders. But these failures are symptomatic of an obsolete and flawed ideal that has guided public policy under almost every government for the past 40 years. This idea has got us to where we are today, and it has been abundantly clear for some time now that we’re travelling down a road we should no longer be on.

The notion that government should be small, take its hands off the wheel, create and administer lightly regulated markets for the private sector, restricting its role to the direction of funds, has demonstratively failed.

The frailties and failings of this pervasive ideal were brought into sharp focus by the pandemic. Where we were able to discard this idea – such as the early response where the public service, elected leaders and business worked in active partnership – we saw Australia respond admirably. Where it was maintained – such as in the vaccine rollout and omicron response – we saw supply chains fail, service systems crumble, and citizens express their betrayal and abandonment. Tragically, these failings were, and still are, being felt by some of our society’s most vulnerable.

Other examples of systemic weakness aren’t hard to find. Our aged care sector has been in crisis for some time now, with this existing crisis accelerated by the pandemic. The 2011 decision to effectively outsource much of this system to the private sector, created a multi-billion-dollar industry often premised on profit. When the pandemic hit, it was the elderly who paid the price, often with their lives, for the faults in this approach — insufficient levels of staff, poor standards of training, and COVID mitigation mismanagement.

Other core services such as employment services and childcare have suffered. Even prior to the pandemic, employment services were fragmented and often difficult to navigate for those in need, the result of years of hands-off service delivery. With tens of thousands of Australians out of work at the height of the pandemic, we witnessed a bureaucracy that could have benefited from a more active participation in the service system they were responsible for.

Deficiencies in our early childhood education and care sector that were already apparent also became impossible to ignore. Questions around affordability and lack of access to quality services, often determined by location and socio-economic status, as highlighted in the Mitchell Institute’s recent Deserts and Oases report, came to the fore, whilst a chronically low paid workforce understandably struggled to cope.

To move beyond this idea and repair the damage it has caused we must reverse the hollowing-out of the public service overseen by governments going back decades. Since the onset of the pandemic, more and more bloated government contracts are being handed out to large, multinational consultancies with dubious track records of performance. This outsourcing of core work once reserved for the bureaucracy is ensuring the perpetuation of a status quo of a public service devoid of capacity, capability, and long-term ambition.

Rebuilding public sector capability can be a popular venture. Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Development since 2017 has indicated that people want government to take a more active role in relation to service delivery. In February 2022, out of 1,069 respondents, 58 percent indicated that they considered it very important that government deliver social services directly, rather than outsourcing to third parties. This was up from 53 percent in 2021 and 57 percent in 2020.

This doesn’t mean that we have to hand back all service delivery to the public sector. Rather, by encouraging a more active partnership between the public and private sectors, and between different parts and levels of government, we can ensure a greater level of accountability and oversight that is currently lacking. Importantly, we also need to enable and empower the public sector to carry this out.

The biggest challenge facing whichever party governs after the next election is to ensure that our public service is fit for purpose. While we’re a reasonable way down the wrong road, there’s still time to turn things around. This is something that will benefit all Australians.

This article was originally published in the Canberra Times – republished with permission.

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