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Email of 29/6/09

Daniel Hurst and Tony Moore
Brisbane Times

Solving SE Queensland's Transport Planning Woes?

I should like to submit for your consideration that the 'create-a-super-department' solution to organisational problems in transport planning in SE Queensland that the Auditor General reportedly endorsed is unlikely to be successful.

Your article (South-East Queensland transport planning in disarray, 23/6/09) drew attention to the Auditor General's criticism of, and suggestion about, transport planning in the region in terms of poor coordination and massive spending since 2004 on the basis of inadequate plans. A subsequent article indicated that the State Government did not seem to be facing up to the Auditor General's implication that, because of organisational weaknesses, a lot of public money may be being spent on poorly considered infrastructure (Moore T., Cash splash no match for brain power: why money alone can't fix our roads, 24/6/09).

Some thoughts about Solving SE Queensland's Transport Planning Woes are outlined below. In brief the latter suggests that:

  • there is no doubt about the deficiencies in transport planning for SE Queensland. Moreover there are good reasons to doubt:
    • the wisdom of some ideas about transport solutions that have been the basis of operational planning and infrastructure investment: and
    • the adequacy of regional land use and infrastructure plans that have been taken as the framework for detailed transport planning;
  • fragmented and unreliable transport planning is unlikely to be fixed by a 'super-department' - an initiative that you reported the Auditor General to have endorsed;
  • fairly conventional public administration machinery could (with adaptation to suit modern conditions) be capable of handling the complex issues involved;
  • Queensland suffers transport problems for many reasons, including:
    • backlogs accumulated due to rapid post-1980 population growth - to which there was no systematic response in the 1980s and only an ineffectual response in the 1990s;
    • ill-informed political influence on both infrastructure planning machinery and projects;
    • poorly conceived 'reforms' in recent decades that have created ineffectual machinery of government - the latter being arguably the most severe constraint;
  • similar deficiencies were involved in earlier crises that emerged in (for example) Queensland's hospital system and SE Queensland's water supplies;
  • the most useful first step towards overcoming problems in planning / delivery of transport (and other) services would be a process that seeks to promote a sense of cohesive purpose within a professional and politically-independent public sector (with structural changes as a possible consequence rather than the first step);
  • there are, however, now many other requirements to create an effective system of government in Queensland.

The public is reportedly becoming disillusioned with the performance of state governments (eg see Courier Mail: Wardill S., 'Voters want to axe state MPs', 24/6/09 and 'Overstated', 27-28/6/09), as well they might. However there would be no point in simply transferring functions to another level of government, if it also suffers from the same half-baked theories about modern governance that have incapacitated state governments.

John Craig

Detailed Argument +


Solving SE Queensland's Transport Planning Woes: Detailed Argument

Auditor General's Concerns

South-East Queensland transport planning in disarray (23/6/09) drew attention to the Auditor General's criticism of, and suggestion about, transport planning in the region. In particular it was reported that he had:

  • expressed concern about:
    • a lack of state level coordination;
    • systemic weakness in planning across operators;
    • the use of out-of-date key transport documents and plans, and inconsistencies in data collection and reporting;
    • a massive increase in spending since 2004 on the basis of immature plans; and
    • a one dimensional approach to public transport.
  • previously expressed similar concerns about poor planning in health (noting Gray S., Qld's health service in need of treatment, 9/6/09); and
  • suggested that the merger of the Transport Department and Main Roads into a single department offered opportunities to enhance integration, embed genuine collaboration and achieve synergies.

Another source suggested that the Auditor General has criticised: a lack of coordinated leadership in transport planning; the lack of certainty that solutions developed were complementary; uncertain data; outdated strategies as the basis for planning; lapsing of Transport Department's coordination plan in 2004; and reliance on a 1997 Integrated Regional Transport Plan despite changes in the region over the past decade [1]

Government Reaction

The State Government did not seem genuine in 'welcoming' the Auditor General's report - as the report implied that, because of organisational weaknesses, public money may be being wasted on poorly considered infrastructure.

For example, a later article by Tony Moore (Cash splash no match for brain power: why money alone can't fix our roads, 24/6/09) noted that the responsible ministers had responded to the Auditor General's report by merely repeating a list of upcoming projects - which some informed observers had reservations about. Furthermore it was reported (Odgers R., 'Premier refuses gridlock apology', Courier Mail, 25/6/09) that:

  • the Premier had responded by merely noting that "rapid population growth in the southeast was driving congestion", so "the government was building roads, bridges and tunnels and improving public transport in a bid to ease traffic gridlock"; though
  • the Auditor General had warned that that "there was no guarantee the situation would improve despite billions of dollars being spent on infrastructure".

Spending Based on Inadequate Plans: A Real Problem

There is no doubt that there are deficiencies in transport planning for SE Queensland (see Brisbane's Transportation Monster). The latter included reference to an outline of widely expressed public concerns about this issue over many years. There is also good reason to doubt the wisdom of some prevailing ideas about transport solutions. 

For example:
  • there has been an assumption (noting the Premier's comment reported above) that gaps in Brisbane's freeway network can be filled by developing tunnels. Yet tunnel options (which are many times more expensive than surface roads where rights of way are available) seem financially suspect. Charging affordable tolls apparently depends on complex financial engineering (eg to defer repayments of debts for decades by ongoing borrowing in the hope that long term traffic growth allows them to be repaid eventually). This is unlikely to be viable in the post-GFC environment and in the face of an expected global peak oil event which seems likely to disrupt the presumed un-ending growth in traffic volumes (see Airport Link: An Example of the Monster?)'. It may well be that major tunnel options in future should be focussed on mass transit applications;
  • some $17m was reportedly committed to undertake a Western Brisbane Transport Network Investigation (WBTNI) - an initiative that seemed highly desirable in the face of existing transport problems in the region that is the focus for future urban growth under the SE Queensland Regional Plan. But it produced no obvious outcome - and advice was received about a joint Transport and Main Road investigation (the 'Connecting SEQ 2031' project) apparently intended to take a broader view of similar questions (see Integrated Regional Transport Plan for SE Queensland: A Case for Increased Public and Business Awareness and Participation);
  • one of the main issues the WBTNI was expected to address was a Brisbane west bypass (ie a route similar to the Gateway Motorway to Brisbane's east). However this option was ruled out politically apparently on the basis that it was outside the urban 'footprint' set by the SEQ regional plan. It seemed to be assumed that the north-south traffic demand to Brisbane's west could be served by the Western Freeway together with a new tunnel freeway north from Toowong roundabout. However, if as is likely the tunnel freeway option proves prohibitively costly, the only option could be the development of the so-called Route 20 which failed in the face of local objections many years ago. It may well be that: the adoption of an urban 'footprint' makes the development of a freeway based transport system impossible - as it limits access to the green-field rights-of-way that such a systems traditionally exploit and contribute to urban sprawl in doing so;
  • three freeway tunnels have been suggested for connection to the Western Freeway at Toowong (two by Brisbane's Lord Mayor's TransApex proposals, and one through WBTNI), yet it seemed that investigations of one of these options (the Northern Link) was being undertaken without considering the other two;
  • the 'Connecting SEQ 2031' project was said to being taking account of diverse challenges including oil supply / price constraints. This seems desirable because there have been indications (in Brisbane as elsewhere) that escalating oil prices reduce total motor vehicle usage and increase public transport demand. However the 'Connecting SEQ 2031' project is to take the regional plan as given - despite the possibility that the global peak oil event will increase fuel costs enormously (eg 3-8 times), make driving much less affordable and thus encourage a shift in urban form (eg discourage suburban-style development - see comments on 'Time to Reassess Land Use'). Thus trying to plan transport systems separately from urban planning and from analysis of likely future fuel costs was likely to be unreliable.

There are moreover grounds for concern about the regional / infrastructure plans for SE Queensland that have been developed over the years in the hope that they would provide a realistic framework for detailed transport planning (eg see Growth Management in SE Queensland and SE Queensland Regional Plan and Infrastructure Plan).

The latter suggested in relation to the regional plan that:
  • problems in managing land use and infrastructure in SE Queensland can not be separated from a general lack of top management competencies in Queensland, and severe dysfunctions that have now developed in state public administration;
  • a solution is available in the medium term - but some envisaged 'solutions' would not work;
  • overcoming the funding constraints to eliminate infrastructure backlogs will not be easy.

In relation to infrastructure plans, it suggested that the plan was a modest and internally coherent proposal that drew attention to many important issues. However it contained fatal defects because:

  • its was a central 'strategic plan' which was necessarily remote from those with the detailed information needed to ensure that the plan makes sense, and the operational responsibility to give it practical effect;
  •  given serious defects in Queensland's infrastructure machinery, committing substantial funding for infrastructure was a formula for 'white elephants';
  • the expectation that a committee could coordinate such a plan was unrealistic;
  • there seemed to be practical defects in the plan itself;
  • the limitations of what can be achieved through public-private partnerships were not resolved.

Super-departments: A Non-Solution?

Unfortunately the fragmentation and unreliability of transport planning is unlikely to be fixed by a super-department (a move that the Auditor General reportedly endorsed). In the first place, for reasons suggested above, no 'super-department' can ever be big enough to internalize everything that needs to be planned simultaneously.

Managing relationships between complex issues (eg through creating a legal framework for social / economic transactions within the community, or arranging services that can't be coordinated through market mechanisms) is in some ways the very essence of what 'governing' involves (see Governing is not just running a large business). Fairly effective machinery has traditionally been established to facilitate coordination through Cabinet, the budget process, senior ministers and central agencies. However the informal communication amongst networked and motivated public service staff is likely to be equally significant.

The present writer recalls concluding years ago that: "Unless the internal organisation structure of [super departments] is good, all that is done is to introduce another echelon which hides the lack of coordination which it is meant to cure. In such a situation disaggregation of the [super department] and their coordination through the Chief Executive could be just as effective" (Craig J., 'Coordination as an aspect of Government Planning and Administration', Master's thesis, University of Queensland, 1978). It seems that 'super-departments' are still widely regarded as unsuccessful by serious students of public administration (see observations below).

This concern about the effectiveness of super-departments applies generally to the across the board restructuring of Queensland's public sector (ie the creation of 13 super-departments under six super-ministries [1]) that was announced in March 2009, though it had not been mentioned before the then-recent election [1].

A Realistic Solution?

Queensland faces real problems in meeting demands for services (eg transport and health). This partly reflects the accumulation of backlogs due to rapid post-1980 population growth to which there was no systematic response in the 1980s and only an ineffectual response in the 1990s.

It also partly reflects poorly-informed political influence over investment decisions.

This is illustrated by lobbying for projects which may appear to have local benefits without concern for their regional impacts. Consider for example:
  • a mayor's explanation about the 'obvious' importance of an extension to the Centenary Highway in anticipation of future urban growth [1]. The problem is that that extension implies adding further traffic to the Centenary Highway / Western Freeway which (as noted below) may be hard to handle;
  • political lobbying by a local MLA for evaluation of a 'Kenmore Bypass' based on purely local considerations, though it would have regional traffic implications - including diverting Moggill Road traffic (and ultimately perhaps also north-and-east-bound Warrego Highway traffic) onto the Centenary Highway / Western Freeway (see Selling a 'Lemon': the Kenmore Bypass)

In other parts of the world political 'pork barrelling' to gain local projects at public  expense has led to notorious 'roads to nowhere'.

The above examples are different. They involve roads that would feed into probably-irresolvable congestion on the Western Freeway. Even if the latter was substantial upgraded, the regional system might not be workable because of the uncertain feasibility of freeway connections at Toowong.

It is noted that in the 1930s the Office of Coordinator General was created in Queensland because of concerns that political influence was being brought to bear to secure public spending on wasteful projects.

However the biggest source of current problems lies in the unthinking creation of ineffectual machinery of government - perhaps primarily as a result of:

  • the financial imbalances that have emerged in Australia's federal system of government - which, especially since the 1970s, have rendered states virtually incapable of taking real responsibility, or being held democratically accountable, for their nominal functions (eg see Federal-State Fiscal Imbalances). The latter referred to the effect of those financial imbalances on shifting power within state agencies from those with the knowledge and skill to 'do things' to those in central agencies concerned with lobbying for funds (an effect very much like the effect of tariff protection on manufacturers);
  • the politicisation, de-skilling, pseudo-commercialization and unworkably-centralised decision-making that was inflicted by the Goss Government in the early 1990s on the basis of inexperienced reformer's theories (eg see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service and Decay of Australian Public Administration). Similarly destructive 'reforms' had led to immediate crises for Victoria's unfortunate Cain Government in the 1980s, as it made the mistake of tasking its newly-unworkable machinery to achieve ambitious goals;
  • the amateurish regional planning and infrastructure management arrangements mentioned above, that have created an insecure context within which operational planning for transport infrastructure has been expected to be undertaken.

The specific organisational defects that the Auditor General's 2009 report identified probably reflect the lack of an effective professional working environment for the Public Service.

Similar factors were previously noted in relation to the crises that emerged in Queensland's hospital system (see Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission) and SE Queensland's water supplies (see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis).

Given an environment favouring professionalism and collaboration (ie where public servants were allowed and motivated to deal with real problems rather than merely mechanically following orders that reflect the intrinsically-limited information available to elected officials), many defects would probably have been identified and resolved internally long ago.

Thus one way to start overcoming defects in planning and delivery of state services is a process (perhaps similar to that used in the 1970s) that seeks to develop a sense of cohesive purpose (eg focused on infrastructure delivery) within a professional and politically-independent public sector - with structural changes as a consequence rather than the driver of improved organisational effectiveness. Such a process would allow all current requirements (not simply those that occur to external critics) to be taken into account in developing new arrangements.

However it needs to be clearly recognised that there would now be many other requirements to create an effective system of government in Queensland.

Aspects of this challenge include:
  • the emergence of a community sense of responsibility and commitment, rather than dependency and a 'lucky-country' apathy, followed by;
  • the creation of a much stronger set of external institutions able to provide informed inputs to the democratic political process - partly to enable Parliament to become a relevant constraint on the abuses of Executive power that arise from cronyism within 'Queensland Inc';
  • reform of federal-financial arrangements to enable and force states to take responsibility for their functions;
  • a more transparent state budget process;
  • career structures that protects public servants against political 'bullying', and a framework for professional evaluation of public service appointments;
  • procedural liberalization and decentralization within government administration;
  • reducing the expectation of what can be achieved through 'regional' planning / coordination - that does not directly engage the operational planning activities of responsible agencies;
  • emphasis on strategic 'management' (to stimulate organisational learning) rather than centralized strategic 'planning';
  • reviewing the expectation that business-like methods are suitable for governing - and particularly reviewing arrangements following from National Competition Policy as the latter has arguably impeded governments in managing infrastructure development;
  • rethinking where public private partnerships are relevant - eg in terms of the need to manage infrastructure systems as well as implementing individual projects;
  • emphasis on increasing economic productivity through development of the market economy, rather than distorting effective government by assuming that 'business-like' methods must be the best way to promote efficiency;
  • dealing with 'modern' challenges to the effectiveness of democratic government (ie growing complexity and globalization).

 Documents are available that refer in more detail to some aspects of this challenge. See also speculations about the requirements to be Queensland's Next Successful Premier .

About Super-departments

Expert Views about Super Departments

  • 'Super-ministries were a short-lived experiment in the UK in the 1970s (House of Commons: Public Administration Select Committee, 'Machinery of Government Changes', 12/7/07 ). The following extract may be noted:
    • "There was a great deal of change, some of which was subsequently recognised not to have worked properly and was revised. One of the examples I think of was the creation of the super ministries in the 1970s, long before I had any influence on it, which were made for reasons that seemed very good at the time but really did not work because the burden on the secretary of state in charge of these super ministries was found to be too great, so the thing fragmented again. I think there is a long history of machinery of government changes of people trying to say, “Let’s get more coordination. Let’s try and bring things together into bigger departments”, and then finding that it is too wide and then shifting them again. Again, I have come to think, and I probably thought this when I was in government, that the frictional cost of making changes very often does exceed the benefit. That is one of the reasons why I think it would be good if the Executive was forced to act a bit more slowly, to have a parliamentary procedure and get wider views coming in before changes were made."
  • "Local and micro reforms have been more successful than higher level attempts at cross-departmental working. Super-ministries can simply worsen the information overload at the centre and they require super-ministers to make them work. Many attempts at crosscutting arrangements—such as those on social policy in Britain in the 1970s—failed because of the lack of political will, inadequate buy-in by departments, lack of clarity about goals and insufficient attention to mechanisms for achieving greater integration." (Mulgan G., 'Joined-up government now and in the future', Public Health Bulletin South Australia, March 2008)
  • John Nethercote suggested that in most cases they are fairly short-lived institutions. They create a huge management task. They rarely achieve their objectives in terms of policy integration and formulation (Questions raised over Gillard's super ministry, 30/11/07)
  • Professor Ken Wiltshire (university of Queensland) noted that international experience shows that super-departments will reduce morale and be harder for clients to relate to (see 'Changes promote a worrying lack of oversight', Courier Mail, 24/6/09 - outlined in Fixing Government in Queensland)