Flat White

Our decision making ghosts

28 September 2020

12:00 PM

28 September 2020

12:00 PM

When it comes to making decisions, the Victorian hotel quarantine disaster shows neither politicians nor public servants seem to know who is in charge.

The decision to use security guards to enforce hotel quarantine led to Victoria’s second wave. But, so far, the inquiry set up to establish who was responsible for this decision has found it was — no one.

After multiple hearings, hundreds of questions asked of the Victorian Chief Health Officer, Andrews’ top bureaucrat, the Emergency Management Commissioner, and a parade of others we have learned — nothing.

Perhaps this non-exhaustive list of bureaucratic titles provides a clue as to where the problem might lie.

Analysis pieces have exclaimed the inquiry has revealed “a quagmire of blame and lack of responsibility.” But this is not revelatory, and it exists at all levels of government.

A CIS submission to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) found the public service was top-heavy, and there are problems around duplication, a lack of efficiency and accountability.

The review resulted in a 384-page report which is, predictably, filled with banal bureaucratese. It discusses duplication, briefly, and concludes what is needed is “broader spans of control.” Those under curfew in Melbourne might disagree.

The other recommendations are typically vague and talk about driving transformation, building trust, and developing and embedding “an inspiring purpose and vision.”

The 2019 report follows on from the 2018 Empowering Change – Fostering Change in the APS report, the 2010 Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian Government administration report, and the APS Policy Capability Roadmap.

Writing stultifyingly long reports, appointing more executives, and providing lists of recommendations creates the illusion of activity. The hotel inquiry, like all the busy work into the APS, will likely yield little to no results.

Responsibility should ultimately lie with elected governments. But as Victoria, the Ruby Princess fiasco, and the fight over aged care have shown, the decision-making structures are virtually useless.

This suits pollies and public servants. They can blame each other for the fire while one holds the match, and the other the petrol.

Monica Wilkie is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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