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5 August 2005
Mr Mark Ludlow
Middle Management from the Top
I noted with interest your account of the establishment of an Economic and Infrastructure Committee to fast-track major projects.
My interpretation of your article: Queensland's premier has established a new infrastructure committee to fast track multi-billion dollar backlog of major projects in SEQ. Premier wants to be known as 'Mr Infrastructure' and adopt the enforcement role mastered by former Treasurer. This is to let people know that there is a structure to get things done. The Economic and Infrastructure Committee will involve Premier, Deputy Premier, Under Treasurer, Coordinator General, and DGs of Premier's Department and DSD. This will involve the senior people in government sitting down and sorting out what is going on (Ludlow M 'Top group to address Qld backlog', Financial Review, 3/8/05).
Unfortunately this effort to demonstrate that the Queensland Government has a structure to get things done does just the opposite.
Dealing with (even major) investment projects should be no more than an upper-middle management role, not something that top executives should have to personally sort out before anything can happen. The fact that top management has to deal with such operational questions reflects a lack of effective organisation and the apparent reversion of Queensland's Public Service skill base to the primarily-clerical-administrator (ie mechanical paper shuffler) status that it had in the 1960s.
The real problems with Queensland's ability to deliver infrastructure involves the breakdown of effective machinery to deal with this - for reasons such as those outlined in Defects in Infrastructure Planning and Delivery in Queensland.
The latter refers to accumulating obstacles to effective action such as:
- federal / state fiscal imbalances (and the escalation of special purpose funding since the 1970s in particular) which made it all but impossible for states to take serious responsibility for their nominal functions because of an inability to commit funding and an enforced focus on 'lobbying';
- fragmentation of responsibility (between providers / purchasers / regulators) associated with introducing competitive service delivery in the 1990s which created confusion about who was supposed to plan infrastructure;
- the politicisation and technical de-skilling of the state Public Service to push through the latter and other 'reforms';
- the consequent development of an idealized (ie unrealistic) budget-linked 'strategic planning' process;
- the need in a competitive environment for economic infrastructure (such as electricity and ports) to be demand (rather than policy) driven - which (a) further reduced the ability of states to take responsibility (or be held accountable) for such infrastructure and (b) was not really possible under Queensland's politically-dominated corporatisation model;
- the added complexity of seeking public private partnerships - a practice which has also distorted and politicized the complex technical process of evaluating infrastructure priorities through lobbying by self interested groups;
- privatization of some monopoly infrastructure (eg Dalrymple Bay coal loader) - which probably requires an impossible level of flexibility in regulating prices;
- repeated ineffectual attempts to develop infrastructure plans regionally, and also by a central planning process, which breaks the critical link between planning capital works and the management of other aspects of the function of which they are part; and
- federal government efforts to set up a central planning process for some infrastructure (eg through Auslink) to over-ride state efforts as the latter are seen to have failed - a system which it has been suggested should be extended to give the federal government full control of export ports.
To fix the shambles which has been created requires serious policy decisions,
not middle-management of individual projects by top executives.