High profile performance targets can be useful for focusing government attention on a few important problems.
But targets’ greatest source of value — creating simple metrics for complex issues — also means they tend to be rife with difficulties — which data is best to measure outcomes, where does it come from, and what does it really mean?
New South Wales’ 12 premier’s priorities are no different, says the Audit Office of NSW, which argues that the data published to track progress on the priorities has “known limitations” not revealed in public reporting.
Some of the priority measures are a good fit, but some have only a loose relationship to the policy problem they are ostensibly tackling, says Auditor General Margaret Crawford.
This is exacerbated by public communications, and even some reporting to ministers and the premier, not making clear how the data relates to the complex problems the premier wants solved.
The 12 premier’s priorities are:
- Creating jobs: 150,000 new jobs by 2019;
- Keeping our environment clean: Reduce the volume of litter by 40% by 2020;
- Delivering infrastructure: 10 key projects in metro and regional areas to be delivered on time and on budget, and nearly 90 local infrastructure projects to be delivered on time;
- Improving education results: Increase the proportion of NSW students in the top two NAPLAN bands by 8% by 2019;
- Driving public sector diversity: Increase the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in the NSW Government sector from 33% to 50% by 2025 and double the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in senior leadership roles in the NSW government sector, from 57 to 114;
- Reducing youth homelessness: Increase the proportion of young people who successfully move from specialist homelessness services to long-term accommodation to more than 34% by 2019;
- Making housing more affordable: 61,000 housing completions on average per year to 2021;
- Reducing domestic violence reoffending: Reduce the proportion of domestic violence perpetrators reoffending by 25% by 2021;
- Improving government services: Improve customer satisfaction with key government services every year, this term of government to 2019;
- Protecting our kids: Decrease the percentage of children and young people re-reported at risk of significant harm by 15% by 2020;
- Improving service levels in hospitals: 81% of patients through emergency departments within four hours by 2019;
- Tackling childhood obesity: Reduce overweight and obesity rates of children by five percentage points by 2025.
Following the 2015 state election, then-premier Mike Baird identified 12 priorities for the government, each represented by a performance target. To drive delivery of these priorities, the Premier’s Implementation Unit was established within the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Gladys Berejiklian re-committed to the targets when she assumed office, and some minor tweaks to the system last year.
Problems with housing data
One example the auditor cites is the priority which seeks to boost housing supply, meant as an indicator for housing affordability. The target of “61,000 housing completions on average per year” uses data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that does not include housing demolitions, meaning it does not give an overall picture of additional available housing, the auditor notes.
The housing completions priority has two supporting targets — 90% of housing approvals determined within 40 days by 2019 and state-led rezoning for 10,000 new dwellings on average per year to 2021. While these relate to some of the inputs on which housing affordability is based, none is a direct indicator of how much NSW residents are spending on their homes.
In addition, the housing approvals data does not include multi-unit dwellings — which have comprised 70% of approved new housing in Sydney in the past few years — and only measures timing for part of the approvals process, thus not reflecting how citizens experience it. Some data on how long approvals take is also based on self-reported information from private certifiers without independent oversight, making it difficult to know whether it is reliable.
Domestic violence reoffending
The target to “reduce the proportion of domestic violence perpetrators reoffending by 25% by 2021″ is also problematic, given that progress towards this target could occur through a reduction in reoffending compared to offending, or by an increase in offending compared to reoffending.
“In other words, the number of reoffences could increase or decrease and it is not clear from the reported rate of reoffending which is the case,” says the auditor’s report.
Additionally, around one-fifth of reoffending occurs before the initial offence is reported. This makes it difficult to deliver on one of the key aims of the target — reducing reoffending through interventions targeted at offenders.
Implementation unit gets a tick
The report found that the Premier’s Implementation Unit was effective in assisting agencies to make progress against the targets, and monitored other datasets, recognising that the individual measures specified in the priorities list would not necessarily provide a full view of the issue.
“Almost all” agencies involved agreed that the implementation unit’s collaborative approach to problem solving helped break down silos and bring agencies together.
“The attention of the premier and other senior ministers provides agencies with the necessary impetus to put resources into collaboratively solving problems that may be the responsibility of just one agency,” says the report.
“The PIU acts as the premier’s representative, encouraging agencies to solve problems together and facilitating cross‑agency collaboration.”
DPC accepted all the auditor’s recommendations.
“I note that the Premier’s Implementation Unit has made a number of changes to their website in response to our report”, said Crawford.
Top photo: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. AAP Image/Joel Carrett