CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email Sent 19/3/09

The Editor
Courier Mail

Do "We Deserve an Effective Public Sector'?

Your editorial of 18/2/09 ('We deserve an effective public sector') suggested that a comprehensive overhaul of Queensland's public service is long overdue - because it has not been operating as it should. Your editorial also suggested that:

  • ministers should be demanding the best of their departments;
  • reform of the state's public sector was one of the key goals of the Goss administration after 1989 and resulted in a huge restructuring - but this was 20 years ago;
  • government spending has increased rapidly - partly because there had been no effective mechanisms to anticipate the need to upgrade (eg water and road) infrastructure to cope with rapid population growth;
  • Queenslanders deserve better than they are getting from large parts of the public service.

For reasons outlined below, I have to dispute your editorial's assertion because we currently get the poor quality of government that we deserve, and on current trends this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

John Craig


Addendum: Why We Get the Poor Quality of Government We Deserve

There are undoubtedly serious defects in Queensland's public sector (eg see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service which includes reference from 2001 onwards to umpteen indicators of dysfunctions).

As your editorial noted, current machinery of government was largely a product of the Goss Government's post-1989 process of reform and restructuring. Unfortunately its process of across-the-board restructuring and restaffing was both amateurish and autocratic - and made a previously bad situation worse (see Queensland's Worst Government?, 2005).

Politicisation in a search for unquestioning political compliance (apparently with ongoing bipartisan support) rendered the public service professionally inept by discouraging top-level practical knowledge, competencies and focus. 'Trendy' theories (eg about managerialism, central strategic planning, commercialization and corporatisation) which did not reflect a realistic understanding of what 'governing' means were applied. The result (as elsewhere in Australia) was ineffectual machinery of government, less concerned with performance than with process, appearances and telling governments whatever they want to hear.

For the Goss Government itself, the damage done to effective administrative machinery was revealed by a lack of practical achievements rather than by any obvious disasters because its focus was public sector 'reform' (see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995)

As your editorial also noted, public spending has had to escalate in recent years to catch up with infrastructure backlogs created by the inability of government machinery to anticipate the effects of rapid population growth. The foundations of those backlogs had arguably been laid in the 1970s and 1980s (ie before the Goss Government) by federal and state governments who distorted and neglected public administration (see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis).

The result of rapidly increased spending in recent years in the absence of the "administrative capability to use effectively the resources the budget provides" has predictably (see About the 2005-06 Budget) been wastage of taxpayer's money on a grand scale. For example, massive spending on infrastructure at the peak of a mining boom caused (approx 30%) cost blow outs, while billions of dollars were committed in SE Queensland for water and transport infrastructure that may not be appropriate (eg see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis and Brisbane's Transportation Monster).

Recent (ALP) state governments have proven unable to fix the mess (any more than the Borbidge Government did), and the now-reformist LNP doesn't seem to know how to do so either (eg see Competent Support to Queensland's Political System). Various statement suggest that the LNP's approach to public sector reform would also involve: emphasising professionalism, experience and merit; not making political appointments because the experience of existing staff is valued; seeking a 3% efficiency dividend; and re-evaluating all infrastructure proposals. Some of this sounds better than past governments have practised, but chasing a 3% 'efficiency dividend' would be ineffectual because real savings / efficiency have to come from rebuilding a competent / cohesive public service that is able to help make sensible decisions and implement them effectively. 'Efficiency dividends' (ie penny pinching) have been tried for years and are counter-productive to achieving the real changes that are now required (see comments on Service Delivery and Performance Commission as an inefficient way of eliminating inefficiency).

By way of background to the above I would draw your attention to a Chronological Summary of representations that have been made about this matter for over a decade. Though this includes reference to 25 substantial analyses of administrative failures and reform proposals that have been widely circulated, it is fair to say that, with only a few exceptions, Queensland's community leaders have not wanted to hear that there might be any fundamental problems. This is unfortunate because increasing complexity (and other factors) is creating many other requirements for new methods and machinery (see Australia's Governance Crisis , 2003)

Thus I have to submit that Queenslanders do not deserve the effective public sector that your editorial suggested they do. Citizens get the quality of politics and government that they are prepared to work for. And Queenslanders seem unwilling to put in the effort to support their system of government - but rather expect that the public sector will magically be a source of 'goodies' no matter how they neglect it or allow their elected representatives to abuse it. For example, the perennial weakness of Queensland Oppositions (which results in a lack of real restraint on abuses by Executive Governments) arguably reflects the lack of competent independent civil institutions to provide the inputs to public policy debates without which Oppositions, who have the right to ask questions in Parliament, have no real way to know what questions they should ask (eg see Queensland's Weak Parliament, 1999 and CPDS Comments on Is our System of Government in Queensland Working?. 2007).