Opinion: It’s on public servants to keep the good work up so that life is easier when the next crisis hits

By John Dalton

Monday November 2, 2020

It’s a truth for policy-makers and theorists that good public policy is developed by way of a rational process. That research and evidence eclipse opinion and hearsay. That the insights of interested parties are used to stress test policy solutions rather than determine policy itself. That the process unfolds like a military parade on an occasion of state — everything is ordered, sequenced and reasonable.

As a result, resources and effort are dedicated in wheelbarrow loads to the work of developing policy; less perhaps is allocated to the tasks of implementation and evaluation. Yet the first cannot be done properly without the others.

A lifetime ago, back in 2019, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, spoke about implementation when addressing a public service audience:

Good government is about receiving excellent policy advice. But that advice is only as good as the consideration in detail that it gives to implementation and execution.

And this is not an exercise in providing a detached or dispassionate summary of the risks that can be logged in the ‘told-you-so’ file for future reference in memoirs.

It’s about telling governments how things can be done, not just the risks of doing them, or saying why they shouldn’t be done. The public service is meant to be an enabler of government policy, not an obstacle.

In 2020, we have had spectacular instances where governments have implemented policy and programs less than perfectly, and human happiness has been compromised as a result — people have been hurt, costs have blown out, mistakes have been made, delays have occurred, funds have been ended in the wrong hands for the wrong reasons. In Australia, recent history gives us plenty of examples: land purchased for airports, the failure of water markets, anything to do with energy markets and the control of carbon dioxide emissions, environmental and heritage protection, wage theft.

Because it’s in the news it’s worthwhile examining the implementation of the hotel quarantine program in Victoria.

In March 2020, the Australian ‘national cabinet’ decided to quarantine travellers from overseas in hotels and minimise the risk of the rapid spread of COVID-19. The national cabinet met on 27 March 2020; and no later than 11:59 pm Saturday 28 March 2020, all travellers arriving in Australia were to undertake a mandatory 14-day self-isolation at designated facilities. The decision spent significant political capital, cost taxpayers and restricted civil liberties — being as it was a form of incarceration.

The decision to act placed enormous pressure on over-worked public servants, health workers, elected officials, etc. — many of whom were working from home and supporting parents and children.

Of course, the idea was the quarantine would generate significant benefits. And that the costs on those quarantined and those quarantining were worth it. But for these benefits to be realised, implementation had to be done really, really well.

We are all wise with the benefit of hindsight. It is true that governments decided that public servants should act quickly. Agencies and individual officers had to act in double-quick time and they lacked perfect information. What we know now was a dark unknown for officers who in March had to deal with a situation deteriorating by the hour.

Because the implementation of the policy had consequences — increased death, substantial economic harm — a coherent, risk-based plan was the pre-requisite for success. And a plan had to be backed up by a set of initiatives that could be implemented — the quarantine program had to be from the outset realistic and achievable.

Like most governments, the Victorian government has guidelines for critical incident procurement. These acknowledge that the need of the day can sometimes require a departure from normal processes. Among other things, agencies must be able to demonstrate value for money, adopt minimum record keeping processes and disclose the contracts they have entered into. In short, good record keeping is important; risks must be identified and managed; the resourcing and management of controls must continue.

There are guides on how best to manage complex work in times of crisis. Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission urges agencies to be on the lookout for ‘red flags’ such as processes not being correctly followed or documented. Or the poor monitoring and supervision of services as they are delivered. Or the inadequate management of contracts.

The key point here is that implementation and crisis management require diligent and ongoing investment in capacity and planning by governments and agencies.

That means an investment in training and ‘war-gaming’ various catastrophic scenarios. Capacity without adequate planning or planning without adequate capacity will always jeopardise the policy formulation and implementation to confront a crisis.

Over the past 20 years, Australian and state governments have had constant turnover of senior staff and constant machinery of government changes. This has made it almost impossible to learn the lessons of past crises and develop guidelines for crisis preparedness. And without this systematic capturing of knowledge, we are made reliant on corporate memory. And memories fade.

In Victoria, the Board of Inquiry into the management of the hotel quarantine program has heard evidence from senior public servants and ministers of:

  • decisions that were poorly recorded and reported
  • unclear lines of authority
  • confusion as to who was responsible for what.

The real operational issue — regardless as to the persons deployed for various tasks — was the essential and pressing need to identify the likelihood of problems and identify the consequence of risk problems. We know that likelihood was high given the high infection rates and that the use of personal protective equipment and other protocols were new to many workers. It was self-evident that the consequences of failure were grave. On any risk assessment, the quarantine program was redlining.

Significant control measures and intensive monitoring of all involved — and it does not matter a fig if they were hotel employees, Australian Defence Force personnel, police, health workers or security guards — were justified.

Justice Coates will release the report of the Board of Inquiry into Hotel Quarantine this month. Many are hoping that heads will roll.

But talk of the rolling of heads diminishes the astonishing work of professionals — since we’re talking about Victoria — and the sacrifices made by communities. In Victoria, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat only by a grinding effort. In short months, the whole state built and then adhered to systems, processes and procedures and reined in a contagion that was spinning out of control.

More important than heads, therefore, is the need to keep the good work up, so that life is easier when the next crisis hits. And this means that governments must fund capacity; plan and wargame crises; identify the risks; document processes; develop a policy implementation plan; monitor and address serious risks; and document lessons learned.

If not, then mark these words…

Another group of poor saps will be back before yet another inquiry defending the indefensible and explaining why good policy was let down by poor administration and poor implementation.

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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
2 months ago

Nicely put, John Dalton. Two supplementary comments.

First, the “capacity” to plan and coordinate that must be funded is always vulnerable to squeezing at budget time by rationalists who insist on performance measures.This type of “capacity” is not easily measurable. Blue sky thinkers and others who wander around corridors with coffee cups without producing quantifiable results are vulnerable to being described as supernumeraries. Any operational organisation needs people who can be pulled in at short notice from elswhere and people who spend their time spreading knowledge around the organisation without producing any identifiable results of their own. Training budgets have long been recognised as targets for cutting at budget time because in the short term, they don’t satisfy the KPIs that governments lay down as election commitments or Treasuries lay down as performance measures.

Governments are too prone to heed the “budget discipline” shouted at them repeatedly by the financial press.

A second comment is that a chronic weakness of modern public service departments is the separation of different capacities. Political authority, legal powers, knowledge, personnel and budgets are all controlled by different entities. The people with knowledge of what to do commonly don’t have either the authority or the money to implement what they know should be done. This might be one of the strongest weaknesses of outsourcing and privatisation: the atomisation of capacity to address challenges. There is no sign that at the Canberra level this lesson has been learnt: witness the NDIS and aged care, despite a long history of failure such as vocational education and employment services to mention just two.

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