Four dimensions of government failure

Better Government – and better outcomes for our communities – would be well served by more active engagement with charities and communities writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.

Four dimensions of government failure, Pro Bono News, 9 September 2021

I have long argued there is a positive aspect to failure – we learn what not to do. There are any number of government failures for us to learn from currently being played out as we struggle to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. 

There are also ongoing government failures to improve fundamental inequalities in many aspects of Australian life across critical areas like education, housing, justice and incarceration, health, suicide prevention, violence and abuse of women and children, employment, poverty, and opportunity.

Eighteen months ago the federal government identified vulnerable people who needed to be protected in the pandemic and made them a priority for vaccines. Our governments still have not vaccinated all our aged care recipients and their carers, people living with disability and their carers, Indigenous populations, frontline health care workers, and others. 

Eighteen months ago the government invested in a COVID-19 app that was to be our ticket to effective track and trace.   

There are multiple dimensions to these failures, but at least four are worthy of note. 

Possibly the most telling systemic issue is the lack of government understanding of the issues that apply at a practical level within communities. This is no accident. It is federal government policy to dismantle many of the consultative mechanisms and advisory groups established to inform and connect central government with issues and communities. 

The smaller government approach of the current federal government has seen the end of critical groups like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and all their working parties. The government closed down many committee and policy structures that enabled peak bodies and service providers to meet regularly with senior government officials. It also downplayed the importance of public servants providing practical advice about what was or was not working within communities. In some cases, ministers now refuse to meet with key groups who represent the interests of people in their area of responsibility. Few formal consultative mechanisms between government and community groups remain. For many community groups and advocates, it feels like the doors to government policy have been increasingly locked and only those who earn a key through offering support to the government can enter. 

If there is limited understanding of communities, there will be limited effectiveness in the programs being developed for those communities.

The second problem contributing to government failure is the outsourcing of service delivery to private for-profit interests. The outsourcing of service delivery is a core ideological position of the current government – transferring government expenditure to the private sector is seen as a win by a government focused on smaller government.

Unfortunately, in the case of the vaccine roll out, the process of transferring government money to private for-profit contracts was poorly managed with limited performance monitoring and accountability. Contractors could not even accurately report against simple targets like the percentage of a population group that had been vaccinated. This is in stark contrast to the well-established systems for administering flu vaccines through workplaces, GPs and community pharmacies that were largely ignored for many months despite pharmacies and others seeking to be involved. 

Compounding this failure is the third factor – not just outsourcing services but privatisation of public service staffing positions. 

In a recent article published by Michael West Media, Outsourcing government itself: the hidden privatisation of the public service, it was noted that; 

The privatisation of the Australian Public Service is proceeding at a staggering pace. Documents accessed under Freedom of Information laws reveal that even senior roles, including assistant directors, executive officers and ministerial advisers, are being outsourced.

The article draws on government departments’ responses to questions about how many of their staffing positions have been outsourced. While the findings are worrying – in some areas contractors outnumber regular staff – the bigger concern is what this privatisation does for all the accountability mechanisms we put around government officials and their work. 

Labour hire contractors aren’t counted in annual reports, and aren’t mentioned in organisational charts… Hiring through outsourcing isn’t checked or balanced by the public service act or government registers… In an effort to keep things running with fewer staff, the public service has responded by quietly moving its workforce off the books. There is no evidence that actual de facto headcounts are lower, or that money is being saved. 

The bottom line for both the outsourcing of services and privatisation of public sector jobs is that there is no evidence either approach works. As the Fairfax Economics editor Ross Gittins wrote this week in The Age

There’s little reason to believe we’ve seen much improvement in the efficiency with which government services have been delivered. Rather, there are numerous examples of reductions in the quality of services and a decline in the policy capability of public service – evident in the need to bring in military generals and the small fortune being spent on management consultants from the big four accounting firms.

A final compounding factor is the arrogance of a longer-term government that thinks it knows best, a government that appears to base many of its key decisions on their desire to gain short-term political advantage. 

Recently, a highly respected charity leader had a discussion with a senior government minister about the rapidly growing needs within the diverse communities the charity was serving. The minister responded by saying that the charity leader was ill informed, and her data was wrong. The minister then implied the charity leader was inflating demand to try and gain more funding. In fact, actual figures showed demand had increased very significantly. The same minister refused to consider the requested flexibility in funding to enable redirection of resources to areas of higher need. 

Apparently, some ministers know better, even though they have little knowledge of, or connection to, many of the communities charities serve. Charities seeking to raise issues or highlight ways to do things better are often met with a form of defensive personalisation as though not agreeing with a ministerial or government position is in some way a personal attack. 

Perhaps most importantly, arrogance prevents governments acknowledging their mistakes and learning from them. We all make mistakes. We all have failures. One of the most important things we can do in our lives is learn from our failures, not pretend failure didn’t happen and proceed on our way.

Better government in Australia would, in part, mean more active engagement and consultation with charities and the communities they serve. But without critical analysis of government policies, acknowledgement of the problems that arise, and learning the lessons of failure, I doubt we can look forward to better government in Australia.

Read on Pro Bono News: four-dimensions-of-government-failure