Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Doing health admin on the cheap may mean things go wrong

In my game, where you spend years watching the antics of politicians and bureaucrats from a ringside seat – say, watching the inquiry into Victoria's tragic hotel quarantine debacle – you tend to become cynical. But not as cynical as a gym buddy of mine, who's had much experience of such inquisitions.

He says that when everyone's denying having made the fateful decision, but saying they don't know who did make it, it's usually a sign they're trying not to dob in the boss.

It's possible the boss in question was now-departed health minister Jenny Mikakos, but I doubt it. Bureaucrats from one department don't usually cover for some other department's minister.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that when the hue and cry is closing in on the really big political boss, it's not surprising to see someone else take the dive on their behalf. If it's a public servant writing the so-sorry-I-misled-you-prime-minister letter, they can expect to be looked after in their next appointment. When it's another minister, it's usually less congenial.

The inquiry revealed various instances of ministers claiming not to have been briefed by their departments. So, the Sir Humphreys work it out themselves and let their ministers know later? Don't believe it. The days of Yes, Minister are long gone.

These days, department heads – federal and state – are sacked so often that senior public servants live in fear of displeasing their minister. How might that happen? If you told them something they'd prefer to be able to say they hadn't been told. Or even if you gave them advice that really annoyed them.

As so often happens, what was missing from the quarantine inquiry's proceedings was acknowledgment of the role of ministerial staffers. They're invisible, apparently. These days, much communication between a department and its minister goes via the staffers. They decide what's too trivial, inconvenient or potentially embarrassing to be passed on.

In all the toing and froing before the inquiry, you may have noticed a lot of witnesses declining to accept responsibility for "collective decision-making" decisions. Such evasion of responsibility is one of the besetting sins of public servants. Their political masters ought to put a stop to it. Which they would – were they not too busy playing the same game.

Back to the search for a guilty party. In Canberra lore, conspiracies are always trumped by stuff-ups. So I don't find it hard to believe that no one in particular made the decision to outsource the running of hotel quarantine to private contractors. It really was a decision that, in Scott Morrison's memorable phrase, "made itself".

It was taken without much thought or discussion because "that's what we always do". Outsourcing the provision of public services has become so ubiquitous no one thought of doing it any other way.

You may think that outsourcing the delivery of public services to for-profit providers – a form of privatisation – must be the bright idea of some naive economist, and you'd be right. Actually, half right.

An economist who's put much thought into government "contracting out", Oliver Hart, of Harvard, demonstrated that it was a good idea if your goal is to cut costs, but a bad idea if you care about maintaining the quality of the service.

This is because of a problem economists call "incomplete contracts". It's humanly impossible to write a contract that covers every problem that could arise and every way the contractor could game the contract at your expense. When you deliver the service yourself, you retain control over quality. Hart was awarded the Nobel prize for his sagacity.

Outsourcing is hugely fashionable in business as well as government. In my experience, it's always about saving money in the fond hope any loss of quality won't be noticed.

Often, the saving comes from ending the good wages and conditions you pay your own workers by sacking them and sending them down the road to work for some contractor on lower pay and worse conditions. It's a way of side-stepping successful unions.

In the public sector, however, another attraction of outsourcing is that it blurs lines of responsibility. "The contractors are giving you a hard time? Blame them, not me." "You'd like to see the contract I've made with the supplier? Sorry, commercial in confidence."

Truth is, governments at both levels and of both colours have gone for years saving money by contracting out wherever possible and imposing annual "efficiency dividends" (an Orwellian term for public service redundancies).

They've given us government on the cheap because they believed we'd prefer a tax cut to decent service. They could have striven to give us better government – including government that was big on accountability and where lines of responsibility were clear – but they settled for cheaper government.

They've spent decades cutting corners in a hundred ways, hoping we wouldn't notice (or do no more than grumble about) the slow decline in quality. Now the pandemic has caught them out. Pity so many lives were lost in getting the message through.