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Email 19/9/08

Mr Darrell Giles
Sunday Mail

Perhaps we've all had it

I noted with interest, but no surprise, that your article ('I've had it', Sunday Mail, 14/0/08) drew attention to the fact that a front-line doctor (a specialist in emergency medicine) had quit because he believed that the public hospital he worked in had become too dangerous and dysfunctional.

There is nothing unusual about crisis prone and dysfunctional public institutions in Queensland (see Queensland's Challenge: A 2006 Report Card). However the problem is not limited to this state. Australia's system of government generally seems to be in trouble as it is trying to operate in ways that worked in a less complex past, and the efforts that the people's elected representatives have made to 'reform' that system to cope with modern challenges have been poorly advised and often made the problem worse (see Australia's Governance Crisis). For example, the bipartisan-supported politicisation of Public Services, which has led to their domination by 'yes men' (and women) rather than by professionalism, not only ensures unquestioning compliance with political directives but that governments gain little feedback about practical defects in their policy agendas.

Unless and until the institutions that support elected governments are made more effective (perhaps in ways suggested in Queensland's next Successful Premier and in Restoring Faith in Politics), professionals such as the doctor your article quoted as well as public 'consumers' of government services will continue to find that governments tend to be dysfunctional so that, as a community, 'we've all had it'.


John Craig

Ministerial Reply - 11/11/08  
A Functional and Responsive Bureaucracy?

Emailed response to Minister 12/11/08

Hon Mr Stephen Robertson, MLA,
Minister for Health

A Functional and Responsive Bureaucracy?

Thanks for your recent detailed response in relation to my email of 19/9/08 ('Perhaps we've all had it') to the Sunday Mail's Mr Darrel Giles.

My email had suggested that allegations of continued dysfunctions in Queensland's public hospital system seemed to be merely examples of broader problems. As I interpreted it, your response pointed out: (a) the importance that you attach to 'a functioning and responsive bureaucracy'; and (b) the many initiatives that the present State Government has taken to respond to the rapid growth in demand for health services.

While I have no doubt that what you say is well-intended, existing dysfunctions appear to be significantly due to whole-of-government factors (ie to be external to particular functions such as public hospitals), and to be merely compounded by Queensland's rapid growth. For example:

  • I have recently examined the way in which government agencies are responding to the effect of rapid growth on transport - and found strong indicators that a study of a road option (which cost taxpayers about $5m) is essentially rubbish (see Selling a 'Lemon': the Kenmore Bypass). Since then I have been made aware that the problem in that case (ie evaluating a project proposal simply in terms of local considerations, though it may have adverse implications for regional transport) seems to have parallels in dealing with other hugely expansive potential projects; Likewise
  • there were major defects in the way in which government agencies had dealt with development of SE Queensland's water supplies (see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis). Certainly supply problems were partly due to rapid population growth. However they were much more a product of the loss of institutional memory (ie of the fact that Wivenhoe Dam was mainly built for flood mitigation, and was not a reliable source of much water supply); and
  • centralized attempts to control supposedly 'strategic' policy issues seem to have been a significant factor in crises affecting both electricity supplies and public hospitals by encouraging a loss of practical realism in affected agencies (see Failure in Queensland's Electricity Distribution Network, and Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission).

Community aspirations for a 'functioning and responsive bureaucracy' have been frustrated by poorly advised and ineptly managed attempts at 'reform' (especially under the Goss Government which did most to engineer our currently unreliable machinery of government). 'Responsiveness' was interpreted as unquestioning political compliance; the Public Service came to be dominated by cronies and 'yes men'; and functional effectiveness disappeared with the staff whose experience might have provided more realistic support to elected governments (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service). The latter both: suggests how the 'wheels fell off;' and lists numerous indicators of resulting dysfunctions.

These problems won't be resolved merely by spending vast amounts of taxpayer money on services that unreliable government machinery identifies as needed to respond to rapid population growth. Massive wastage is the more likely result. They also can't be resolved by political declarations about the importance of an 'effective bureaucracy'. Effectiveness won't grow for decades in ground in which ineptitude and injustice are the most available seeds. Finally, as suggested in my earlier email, they also won't be resolved without considering the 21st century difficulties affecting Australia's system of government generally (eg see Australia's Governance Crisis).

John Craig