20 years on, government services reports benchmark delivery

The staggered publication of the Productivity Commission’s 20th annual Report on Government Services began today with the nationwide data on disability and aged care services, youth justice, child protection, public housing and homelessness.

Justice and emergency management land this Friday and Health next Wednesday, February 4, while the childcare, education and training data is released next Friday, February 6.

Mini case studies of federation-leading service delivery — first introduced to the RoGS in 2011 after a 2009 Council of Australian Governments review recommended the inclusion of specific examples to directly influence reform in other jurisdictions — will be included in three of this year’s seven volumes.

The ACT Ambulance Service’s efforts to improve response times, which demonstrated significant improvement in the 2014 RoGS, will be featured in a case study along with the emergency management data this Friday. The ACT government also features in a case study on mental health services in next Wednesday’s volume, demonstrating how the use of seclusion for in-patients suffering an acute episode of mental illness has been reduced.

Western Australia’s independent public schools initiative is examined in a case study as part of the school education volume next week.

The PC’s RoGS secretariat chooses the case studies on the basis of selection criteria to ensure they offer genuinely instructive examples of service delivery improvements and innovation. Case studies must demonstrate consistency with the relevant performance indicator framework and with the objectives of the particular service area, as defined in the report. They must also be backed up by a formal evaluation available in the public domain, where possible, or otherwise by evidence of quantifiable improvements.

The commission describes this year’s edition of the report, which it produces for a steering committee of senior central agency staff from all Australian governments, as a “remarkable milestone”. In his first year chairing the PC, and by default the RoGS steering committee, Peter Harris has paid tribute to the “long-term commitment to transparency and accountability” demonstrated by states and territories:

“Few exercises that rely on cooperation and consensus across governments and departments continue to thrive over two decades — and it is particularly challenging to maintain government support for a report that is often used to criticise the performance of governments. However, the short term pain of increased accountability is offset by long-term gains.”

While there has never been a cost-benefit analysis of the exercise itself, former PC chairman Gary Banks and RoGS secretariat head Lawrence McDonald wrote in 2010 that “there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the information in RoGS has played a significant role in informing policy improvements across a broad range of services”. While the cost is significant — about $2.8 million to the secretariat alone five years ago — they concluded that:

“Given the economic and social importance of the services covered by RoGS, even relatively small improvements in their effectiveness or efficiency would be expected to far outweigh the cost of producing it.”

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