When the government changes, the country changes.
Can I ask, then, with the election behind us, that one of the things that changes is the way we treat our public servants?
The Morrison government's view of public servants was that their role was purely instrumental. It wasn't their job to give advice on what the best policy would be, or even to say if a proposed policy was misdirected, inefficient, or illegal. Their job was to carry it out.
Personally and professionally, I've had to deal with entry-level and executive public servants often enough to become intimately familiar with smothering red tape, pettifogging bureaucracy, and box-ticking inflexibility. It's enough to make me applaud any attempt to whip them into line. As a foster parent, for example, I can see the point of having to undergo regular checks by the bureaucrats, but foster parents are subject to approximately 18 times as many rules as actual parents. Surely five times as many would be enough?
In Australia, complaints about bureaucracy generally lead to recommendations for privatisation. I've done it myself: in my time working in government in Victoria, in the tourism corner, the government had got itself into operating a wine bar and selling tickets to see the Phillip Island penguins from an expensive CBD office. I don't know about you, but I just don't see those activities as core functions of government.
I privatised them and cut public servant numbers without a moment's regret. Private enterprise did the job 10 times better and cheaper, and even if it hadn't, nobody but obsessive penguin-watchers would have been seriously worse off. I didn't even bother to set down any particular regulations to guide the private penguin-ticket sellers.
That's an easy case, though. If something isn't wildly important in the first place, it doesn't matter that much whether it's done well or done badly, and correspondingly it doesn't matter much who does it. But at the other end of the scale of importance, when it comes to administering welfare payments, or funding innovation, or running aged care, people and institutions and the country all have a lot at stake.
That doesn't mean the government can't hand over the work to the private sector (or the not-for-profit sector), but it does mean the government can't pass on the responsibility for seeing it works right. If it contracts the job out, the contract has to be watertight.
The government gets to define the measures of success and failure, but that is about the only power it retains. If all it cares about is the budget, the measures will be monetary, and the new owners will squeeze every other variable until aged care homes spend less on food than boarding kennels do.
In important matters like aged care, you need regulation, and you need people whose job is to police the regulations to see that they're followed, which involves quite a lot of box-ticking. To the managers of aged care facilities, this might look like pettifogging bureaucracy. But if you're looking at spending the rest of your life in one of those facilities, I imagine you'd be wanting all the bureaucracy available, if it was aimed in the right direction.
So how do you distinguish between good bureaucracy and bad bureaucracy? You could try giving the responsibility to good people - charities, say - but that's a bit risky. A charity that's been given an underfunded contract can be solely tempted to put its own financial health ahead of the comfort of its clients.
If you have to bureaucratise, then, you need some principles to guide you. So how can you build in metrics that are humane, that look at what's important to the people you're dealing with, and that can't be doctored or gamed? It's tricky. If you allow flexibility, you can drift into having a thousand different standards and no reliability; if you run a rigid algorithm, you end up with things like robodebt.
It's a matter of accountability. It's a matter, specifically, of having the rules drawn up by public servants who aren't accountable only to the whims of a government minister. The public service has a responsibility to the public, and must be supported by a code of ethics and an openness to the complaints of the clients they are supposed to serve. There needs to be a culture geared to achieving positive gains - good outcomes for people's lives - rather than simply avoiding waste. We need to incentivise understanding. Bring on the changes.
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