Why policy by thought bubble leads to redundant reform and what to do about it

By Geoffrey Brown

Things to be grateful for: our country’s leaders don’t do policy by Twitter… Yet.

Although… The head of the NSW Rural Fire Service did get a shock when he first learned via the news that the federal government was sending in the army to help fight the fires this summer.

Extreme examples aside, public service workers everywhere will tell you that the time between political thought bubbles and policy announcement is reducing at a hair-raising pace. Thanks to technology and the 24-hour news cycle, public expectations for quick responses and cost-effective, efficient, sustainable solutions has never been greater.

And that’s a good thing, right? We want leaders who can make the hard decisions and make them before they get distracted by the next issue, or the next election. But for the bureaucrats charged with backing them up, responding to the ever-changing demands of government effectively is no mean feat. Most government departments struggle to align to the speeds at which the problems and suggested solutions are coming through. The implications of this are monumental: government policy is regularly at risk of being redundant by the time it is implemented.

No room for the status quo

Clearly, staying static is no longer an option.  Whether it be in the public or private sector in the current digitally driven environment, you are either growing or you are declining, there is no future for an organisation that holds a neutral growth position.

From a corporate perspective, if you are not achieving, at an absolute minimum, a growth level that’s at least 200-300 basis points above inflation, you may as well close up shop. In reality you probably need to be making 20 percent above to invest in the R&D that will keep your business at the forefront and create competitive advantage.

In the public sector, if we can’t have a system that delivers it’s product or its services in a way that meets the expectations of the consumer of that product or service, consumers and opposition parties immediately question why we have it at all. The same is as true for the health system as it is for the country’s natural resources.

Consider three examples:

The win:

First, the Corona virus. Following the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002 Australian governments got smart. They invested in technology that this week allowed us to map of the genome sequence of the current coronavirus in a timeframe that was previously totally unimaginable. This information will help hone the world’s response to the virus, including the development of a vaccine. They didn’t know what the next viral threat would be. They prepared themselves with the technology and processes necessary to tackle the unforeseeable.

Room for improvement:

The ACT government received many pats on the back for its vision to “drought-proof” the capital by building a dam with a capacity well beyond the needs of its population trajectory. They have succeeded up until now, sparing Canberrans water restrictions despite the current drought. But if the drought conditions continue in 2020, restrictions are expected to come into force even despite the recent heavy rains. The government preparations were for a drought on the scale of the previous worst big dry, the Millennium drought. They didn’t expect to face anything worse.

The ACT Government now needs to reconsider its options. Developing strategies on the basis of past events is a high-risk approach. The only way to prepare for the unforeseen is to look forward and ask: “What if?”. And as a society we need to move beyond the idea that we can fix everything with a one-off solution, as comforting as it is.

The catastrophe:

Finally, consider the high-rise building code defect debacle. The government outsourced quality control aspects of the building process to private certifiers and the result was a significant drop in quality and safety standards across the country. Members of the public have been crushed financially and confidence in new-build apartments has plummeted. This is a classic example of a well-intended policy that failed to keep pace with the rapid growth in high rise development occurring in major cities (a phenomenal 667,000 apartments in 18 years). People had been flagging the issues for years before it exploded in the media.

The benefits of ongoing reform

Ongoing reform enables government agencies to create environments that allow them to respond to the demands of governments in more timely, cost-effective and flexible ways. It is essential if agencies are to remain relevant in a world that is characterised by rapid change and ever-increasing speeds of redundancy.

So how do you achieve ongoing reform?

Ongoing reform must become part of the public sector’s DNA. It must be embedded in the day to day activities of government agencies. And this can only be achieved through the development of a culture and structure that can easily and automatically evolve, rather than being driven by slow and expensive processes of review.

In my next blog I will look more closely at the biggest barrier to ongoing reform and the best way to tackle it.