In Brian’s wrap of the Queensland election, he observed that “competence” was a factor in the election loss:
The second specific factor was competence. First there was the Health Department pay debacle, a stuff up of gargantuan proportions which went on forever. Staff were mostly being underpaid, but some were overpaid. Payments for overtime and extra shifts were not going through. Attempts to compensate and rectify became farcical. Is it fixed now? Then an employee managed to nick $16 million dollars.
This was April 2010. This is December 2012 where they are still talking about significantly improving the ‘payroll experience’ of staff. This happened as the election was about to be announced. Maybe it was the Commonwealth Bank’s fault, but it didn’t help.
I’d like to pick apart this notion of “competence” a bit.
Ultimately, government should be held accountable for the quality of the services that they provide. But, realistically, how much influence does a Minister have over the way the policies they decide are implemented? Was the Queensland Health Minister supposed to be sitting in on code reviews while the Health Department’s accounting software was being developed?
In the ideal world, analysis of government “stuffups” would attempt to distinguish between “pure” implementation failures, where the policy was fine and the bureaucracy for whatever reason simply stuffed up. In such cases, criticism of the government should really be about appointing the wrong people and perhaps lack of oversight. By contrast, there are plenty of cases where the policy itself contributes to the stuffup, or even makes it inevitable. I certainly haven’t followed the ins and outs of the Queensland pay dispute issue, but I don’t think there’s any dispute, at least, that the Health Department needs a payroll system. By contrast, with something like the Victorian government’s policy of putting armed guards at every train station, the policy itself is fundamentally misconceived, meaning that the implementation is inevitably going to be a stuffup.
But seeing we’re not going to get those kinds of distinctions, and governments do get judged on whether important stuff like health workers getting paid happens, what can politicians do to reduce “stuffups”? Are state government ministers not hiring enough people who know something about program delivery and can smell when a project is going wrong, for instance?