Qld emergency services: consensus reform emerges from bluster

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 13, 2016

Armed with 70 pages of advice from its public service commission, the Queensland government says it is fixing a bureaucratic mess created by its predecessors — who were also acting on detailed expert advice at the time.

At the end of August, legislation carried through the government’s plan to shrink the Public Safety Business Agency to a small shared corporate services centre for emergency services, governed by the commissioners for fire and emergency services, and police, with an external board member.

Over 760 employees had already transferred from the PSBA back to the Queensland Police Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. Around 150 more who issue the Blue Card accreditation for working with children would soon go to the Department of Justice and the Attorney-General. Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Bill Byrne said the government had already helped police and firefighters “regain control over functions critical to their operations, such as training academies, strategy and policy areas” as well.

Halfway through 2015 the agency had just under 2000 full-time equivalent public servants, as well as 392 sworn police officers and 50 fire officers on secondment.

As Byrne put it, the new legislation was simply putting into “formal effect” the recommendations of the QPSC’s review of the PSBA, tabled in February. At the same time, his statement triumphantly declared the Palaszczuk government was “taking another step forward in its election commitment to unravel the bureaucratic mess that the former [government] created”. The report itself describes the election promise a little differently.

It says the government simply committed to review the PSBA “in recognition of ongoing employee and union concerns regarding the effectiveness of the model”. The minister’s statement also conveniently omits that the PSBA was just one unsuccessful element of a large reform package put in place by the previous regime.

A cross-agency steering committee was convened and simple terms of reference devised. Over six months in 2015, the committee considered a mountain of evidence from diverse sources including “quantitative and qualitative data analysis and benchmarking” as well as workshops with over 600 staff of the relevant emergency service agencies and more than 60 submissions.

Three years ago the former Newman government went through roughly the same process to justify the arrangements that are now being undone, albeit with former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty in the role of independent reviewer, and a much bigger idea in mind.

Like Byrne, Newman and his police minister Jack Dempsey leaned heavily on Keelty’s 335-page report, Sustaining the Unsustainable, and his reputation as “one of the world’s most respected emergency professionals” to back up their grand plan.

The “once-in-a-generation comprehensive review into all aspects of the portfolio including the interoperability, technology, operations and management” of the emergency services agencies would allow them to work together more effectively, especially during disasters, said the former premier:

“Never before has such a forensic review been undertaken into the way each agency within the portfolio operates and how it can be improved.

“My Government asked Mr Keelty to take a no-holds-barred approach in carrying out his review to ensure the community is getting the best possible response, not just now but 30 years into the future.”

Dempsey, like the current government, gave assurances that the reforms were designed with the emergency services officers in mind:

“I believe most staff understand the difficulties they face during disasters and emergencies needed to be addressed not only for their benefit, but also to ensure better response capabilities for the people of Queensland.

“The changes recommended by Mr Keelty are about refocussing the portfolio to ensure frontline crews spend as much time as possible on the frontline.”

After a few months in power, in April last year, Palaszczuk’s original police minister and Byrne’s predecessor Jo-Ann Miller derided the Keelty review as “basically an opinion piece” and criticised its high price tag.

So what went wrong? Actually, not all that much when the Keelty reforms are considered in their entirety. Nor is there any credible suggestion he was politically aligned with Newman or that his report was the cause the PSBA’s woes; the Courier-Mail even reported he felt the agency “was not set up as he intended and was not operating as it should”.

The former AFP commissioner’s recommendations placed corrections in the justice and attorney-general portfolio (noting it was an odd fit for emergency services) and ambulances under the health umbrella. Emergency management was merged with fire and rescue to form a new department. Keelty left police operations largely alone as they were already undergoing change and focused on shortcomings in ICT and corporate services.

What operational reforms he did propose included taking cops off guard duty in police stations and the task of shepherding wide loads down the highway. His report also led to the creation of the Inspector-General of Emergency Management, and much of that legacy will remain.

Last year, the public service review of the PSBA suggested “significant changes” were needed for it to reach its “full potential” as a shared services centre.

The main problem reported was widespread “confusion” about the PSBA among its own staff and the agencies it services alike. In line with the current government’s narrative, the QPSC report paints a picture of an almost comedic situation where most staff in the portfolio couldn’t confidently answer the most basic questions:

  • what the role of the PSBA is and what it is trying to achieve;
  • what services the PSBA delivers and what services are the responsibility of the partner agencies or others;
  • what the service expectations are for both providers and clients;
  • who does what and who is ultimately responsible; and
  • where accountabilities lie.

Starting from this premise, the review found “merit and potential” in the Keelty idea of a shared services centre for the portfolio but recommended significantly reduced functions for the PSBA, and clarification of the more important functions that would go back to the emergency agencies.

Further, a new board of management gave the two commissioners — fire and emergency services, and police — a vehicle for whole portfolio co-ordination along with a single external board member. This in turn will make ministerial oversight more effective, according to the QPSC report.

Governments regularly have broad and sometimes half-formed notions that need to be tested, analysed, bolstered or filled out by experts from inside or outside the public service. In the worst cases, strong advice is ignored for dubious reasons or dubious advice is tailor-made to justify pre-determined policy.

In this case, despite the political rhetoric, both reviews had something to add to Queensland’s public sector. The Keelty review served up a sensible administrative structure for the Newman government’s vision of a vast emergency services and disaster management overhaul. The public service commission’s follow-up looked into where this new piece of government machinery wasn’t wired up properly and made the necessary adjustments.

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