On stuffups

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?

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41 responses to “On stuffups”

  1. Brian

    Robert, to explain the payroll stuffup briefly, it’s apparently a large and complex system. Incredibly the boffins tried to introduce a new system by simply turning the old one off and turning the new one on the next day. The new one didn’t work and apparently they couldn’t go back to the old one.

    So they had nurses, doctors and others working who couldn’t pay for the essentials of life.

    Then they spent over $200 million and more than 2 years trying to fix the thing.

    I’m probably not the best to explain it, but that’s broadly what happened. I think it’s one of these issues where the necessary approvals had to be given by people who didn’t understand technically what was being proposed and didn’t know what questions to ask.

  2. ken mckay

    The issue is the real story has never come out. Officers of the Department wrote Ministerial briefing notes warning of impending disaster, non compliance with contract (this has been revealed by RTI). The Minister claims the briefing note was never provided to him. There has been no serious investigation to determine whether the Ministers claims are correct, and if so, no serious investigation to determine who stopped the briefing note reaching the Minister

  3. Craig Mc

    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?

    In my experience, it’s the opposite. They hire too many people too soon without knowing what their requirements are – and they’re unknowable.

    No one will commit to requirements because they don’t want to be responsible for them. I’ve just seen the fallout from afar of the Vic government’s attempt to replace the Met’s control room in Melbourne. Lots of public and private money trashed on that project, and you couldn’t even say it’s a project where the scope is too big.

  4. patrickg

    non compliance with contract

    From a commercial side, I can verify to my knowledge that this is true. Govt was happy to blame IT suppliers but they breached their own contract conditions on several counts as I understand.

  5. Jenny

    I agree that the notion of Ministerial responsibility involves the two elements of (1) setting the public servants a reasonable task and (2) hiring the right people to do it. I also think that recruitment of the right people is the more important of the two since those people will inevitably have a role in ensuring that new policies are practical. One of the reasons it is reasonable for a new Government to get a ‘honeymoon’ period is that to a large extent it will be saddled with the recruits of the previous Government. After that it needs to be effectively monitoring performance, casting out dead wood and replacing it.

    My team was involved about two years ago in reviewing the selection of a senior public servant. The selection panel consisted entirely of senior public servants. Interestingly the Minister proudly advised us that she had had no involvement in the decision other than to approve her department’s choice of selection panel members and to rubber stamp the panel’s recommendation. Her fear was that any involvement by her would ‘politicise’ the selection.

    Whereas I would have thought that Governments live or die on their selection decisions and that it would be widely expected that Ministers would want close personal involvement. The review highlighted for me the enormous and growing fear that Government’s have of media sniping.

    But in summary, I would allow a new Government a brief honeymoon, then hold it 100% responsible for stuff-ups on its watch.

  6. Tyro Rex

    Craig Mc is right. Frequently large organisations try to scale their projects straight away. Combined with what Brian said – a big bang switchover – it’s the classic case of a project that fails before it even starts. Instead of an incremental switchover or a feature-by-feature rollout they went the big bang and paid the inevitable price.

    This will be down to both vendors and client (department). Any IT project that succeeds or fails on meeting “contractual obligations” has already failed.

  7. Rossini

    “But in summary, I would allow a new Government a brief honeymoon, then hold it 100% responsible for stuff-ups on its watch.”
    Jenny #5
    If you want accountability you must define “a brief honneymoon” & then be consistant & hold all politicians to that time frame!

  8. TerjeP

    Jenny is spot on. Recruitment decisions for direct reports is the one task a manager should not delegate. And if ministers are not managers then what the heck are they?

  9. Chris

    Jenny @ 5 said:

    But in summary, I would allow a new Government a brief honeymoon, then hold it 100% responsible for stuff-ups on its watch.

    Its not that easy for a minister to move on a public servant they don’t think is doing a good job. Or if the problems are further down the food chain even if the senior managers have the support of the minister they can’t just fire people they don’t think are doing a good enough job. So I think an incoming government needs more than just a short honeymoon to fix things up.

    The ALP in Queensland didn’t really have that excuse though given how long they’d been in power.

  10. Occam's Blunt Razor

    @5 and @7 – that is what Newman has begun doing – making critical appointments and now he gets criticised for ignoring process.

  11. billie

    I can’t understand how you can not get a payroll system right.

    Every one else has been running computerised payrolls for the past 50 years. The Australian Tax Office supplies the modules to calculate tax correctly every year.

    Why didn’t Queensland Health use Mayne Nickless or Group 4 or whatever its name is this year or even MYOB?

    It was a payroll system people, not rocket science.
    The same comments apply about workcover systems, why [write|customise] your own when there are standout leaders touting for business

  12. Pointybirds

    Perhaps we’re talking about the difference between strategic and tactical competencies.

    I would consider lack of oversight of an incompetently run project to be a measure of incompetence in itself.

    The lack of communication is not from code monkey to minister; it’s from code monkey to team leader to project manager to upper management etc to minister; if there is a failure in recognising risks and making decisions, it belongs to at least one (but probably more) of these points. From the (admittedly little) I know of the payroll implementation, some of the serious risks were known in advance and either not communicated or ignored.

    I can appreciate it wouldn’t be a good feeling as a minister to have their reputation being at the mercy of their respective bureaucracy, but surely it’s a good way to keep them interested in what happens on their watch? We don’t want situations of plausible deniability and debates over “For Neville” style emails.

  13. wilful

    With reference to the ongoing stuff-up that is/was Melbourne’s Myki, it’s not that the original contract was a sad joke that gets me, it’s that it was stuff-up on stuff-up on stuff-up, and no one was ever held accountable, Brumby never sacked anyone, and he never apologised to the people of Victoria.

  14. billie

    Re MYKI, Baillieu made an election promise to scrap MYKI but what happened this week? weekly Metcards were discontinued and people queue to get through the barriers because it takes 3 seconds to touch off a MYKI.

    The equipment purchased is too slow to cope with peak hour volumes at major metropolitan stations

    The software coding was poor, the coders were caught asking for help on the internet

    It’s an open secret that millions were spent on idle testers because the code wasn’t available for testing, because the testers were on a contract that was going to be paid

    As an outsider I can tell you the user (Department of Transport) did not spec the system properly, they missed ticket types and failed to understand the geography of the city (important because MYKI is updated in real time back at the data centre – hence 3 seconds to touch off)

    The system design is clearly wrong, think convoluted database design – why does it take up to 2 weeks for the amount credited via internet banking to update your MYKI account. As an IT professional who worked on country train booking systems, I will only charge MYKI with cash at a train station, yes I drive to the station to top up the card.

    I have a simple elegant solution that would be simple to code, simple to understand, simple to maintain [and I have form in this area] but it would tip the MYKI system architecture upside down

    I know this is a Qld stuffup thread, but Liberal Baillieu has had 18 months to pull the plug or continue

  15. BilB

    Stuffups are relative. In business we aim to lose as little as possible, but we routinely give away far more than we ever loose.

    A 200 million stuffup is not a good thing. However the Qhealth budget is 11 billion. If wages are half of that then we are talking about 5.5 billion. In the course of managing that amount a stuffup was made but it amounts to 3.6 percent. If that loss was over a 2 year period then it is 1.8%. Presumably there was a cost saving to be made by the change and the loss should be balance against that. If you are going to sweat over every dollar then it can seem to be a massive problem, when in fact it is not.

    By comparison Telstra have had for many years a policy of cutting off peoples phones when they were more than a few weeks overdue on their account. Worse, when this happened they put a message on the line which announces that “this number has been disconnected”. Imagine what that means for a business, and further how they would react to it. In my case this happened when my business was in its first year. Thereafter I have only used Telstra as a line provider and local call connection in order to make the bill from the one company that can completely disconnect my businees the smallest and most easily paid bill. My toll calls, mobile phone calls and internet connection are all with other providers and are by far the highest profit part of my communication budget from a service providers point of view.

    So the comment is what has this meant in terms of losses taken by this “blue chip” private company. In order to have their bills paid on a particular day this business has forgone at leat 5 times the volume of business and 10 times the profit where in fact there is no risk of loss, just the perception that there might be one. In my lifetime I have never not paid a phone bill, though I have been late in paying occaisionally.

    Is that good business? How does the ongoing loss of a bad credit policy (a loss that I would estimate to be in the tens of billions of dollars over time) balance against a one time loss by a government department? It is all perception.

    If you challenge your service or product provider you can routinely expect to get a 5% discount. Businesses routinely expect up to 25% discount lower than list price for reliable patronage. In other words we routinely give away far more than we ever loose in “stuff ups”.

  16. jumpy

    Governments measure their stuff-ups in votes, not dollars.

  17. billie

    getting back to Queensland health and Melbourne’s MYKI key people creamed off exhorbitant sums, in Qld $16 million by one person and in Victoria consultants [names forgotten] ripped off millions.

    If we still worked with a Max Weber 1880s style bureaucracy where people were hired on merit and paid published sums of money there would be more governance over projects, no veil of commercial-in-confidence

  18. BilB

    Indeed they do, Jumpy. Do you seriously believe that the outcome would have been any different if the LNP were the over lords of the pay system update. The same bunch of boffins are going to make the same measure of goofs for a project of that scale.

  19. Polyquats

    As I understand it, the new Qld payroll system was planned to be rolled out across the service starting with the smaller, less complex departments. The decision to bring Health to second place on the queue, despite the size and complexity of the payroll, was a ministerial one.
    I don’t know what chain of events led to the poor decisions that resulted in the total debacle that followed, but I suspect that at least part of the problem is the antiquated IT platform that Health is currently saddled with. The introduction of all new software is a major drama, with cost blow-outs and delays. Consequently, even basic software like word processing, email and browsers don’t get upgraded.

  20. jumpy

    [email protected], you must be from that river in Egypt.

    And yes i do

  21. jumpy

    Didn’t Lucas, after a scathing review by the A.G., step down as deputy Premier?

    He admitted responsibility.

  22. wpd

    And if ministers are not managers then what the heck are they?

    Shakes head. A classic case of having no idea as to the role played by Ministers.

  23. Joe

    So, this might be a naiive question, but why aren’t these kinds of projects insured? And what is the tendering process for such projects like? Is there a process of assessing the tendering process and the result?

    A minister is almost never going to be able to understand the details involved in implementing such a system and can’t therefore really take responsible for it. At best a minister can describe what is required. So, in a situation such as this, where a minister is dependent on his advisers, it seems like there should be some kind of firewall separating them, with the majority of the responsibility being laid upon the experts– software engineers, public service, etc.

    I ask about the tender process etc. above, because the regulation of the process would remain the responsibility of the minister. It seems like it could be quite a clean system? Would require a little less ego on the part of the ministers, perhaps.

    Why wouldn’t you use an off the shelf product, for example, from SAP?

    (It seems to me, that if you’re going to have privatisation, you need to have insurance. Private business shouldn’t be able to just walk away and leave behind a disaster, it has to be a fair relationship between partners.)

  24. Chris

    Joe @ 21 – almost certainly they tendered the process out. On insurance I doubt they could get insurance or it would be so expensive to not be worth it. I think Governments generally self insure anyway. The private partners may well have to carry insurance (this is common) but that only kicks in if they can prove its actually the fault of the external company. I’d guess there’s also penalty clauses, but again it depends on whose to blame for the problem.

    I don’t know anything about the specific example, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they used a lot of off-the-shelf products in implementing the solution. But everyone is different and someone needs to glue it all together which is where you often get a lot of the problems. I doubt the solution is as straightforward as some here may believe.

    What does appear to be problematic is lack of sufficient testing. In retrospect it makes a lot of sense to run the payroll systems in parallel for a while as a final check. But the government was probably trying to save money so skipped that stage. And while the minister may not be directly responsible for that decision, the minister would have put the budget constraints on the project and would have some responsibility for appointing the public servants (or at least the process used) who are directly responsible.

  25. John D

    I remember a consultant describing a company I worked for as a “head ducking culture.” It was a head ducking culture because the senior managers came and went in a few years while the line supervisors had been there for yonks and had often worked their way up from the shop floor. Each new manager would try and push through new changes that were supposed to impress the outsiders who might give them their next promotion. The line supervisors survived by ducking their heads to avoid the new batch of bullshit while working to minimize the damage caused by this bullshit.
    At least in the case of this company the managers did have relevant expertise.
    So ask yourself what is going to happen in the public service. Most ministers will be sacked or moved to another ministry every couple of years. Worse still most will have no relevant expertise and very few will have run a large organization.
    Perhaps we could learn from the US system and have at least some of the ministers people from outside of parliament who are properly qualified to do what they are being asked to do.

  26. Barge

    I think you will find that the Health Payroll was an ‘off the shelf’ system (maybe SAP). I understand that the problem occurred in configuring the system. Lots of different awards, lots of different pay scales and the systems required to capture this data was where the problems occurred.

    Having worked in IT within the Queensland Government, the problems I saw related to incompetence. People get promoted because of reasons other than competence and the Senior Management got there the same way. Most have very little idea of how to run complicated projects and they cannot be held accountable when they fail.

    Criteria for success usually involves politics (appearance over reality). The aim is to make sure a project comes in on time and the way to achieve that is to leave out functionality (that can be done later and nobody will know or care). You keep redefining ‘the project’ and that way you always bring it in ‘on time’ and ‘within budget’.

    That’s what it is all about.

  27. wilful

    I think that we can all agree, unless we are supreme partisan warriors, that stuff-up in service or project delivery are distinctly non-partisan – both sides have got plenty enough examples of stuff-ups on their watch. Better quality Ministers do help, and some people may think one side has higher quality talent than the other, but I couldn’t say that.

    And no one’s even mentioned defence yet, one of our favourite stuff-up organisations.

  28. Chris

    I think that we can all agree, unless we are supreme partisan warriors, that stuff-up in service or project delivery are distinctly non-partisan – both sides have got plenty enough examples of stuff-ups on their watch.

    Agreed! But they should still be held accountable when there are failures and ask them how they are going to minimise the risk of further failures in the future. Defence is a great example of where the minister should be asked now what specific changes he is making to reduce the chance of stuff ups in the future.

  29. BilB

    Jumpy @20,

    So you are prepared to admit that Newman is likely to make an even worse mess of such IT projects, particualrly in view of his immediate chronyism.

    I agree with you and share your concern, though I was prepared to be concilliatory at least for a time.

  30. Patrickb

    “the Victorian government’s policy of putting armed guards at every train station”
    WTF, is this true? Is Victoria now the South Central LA of the Australian train station landscape?

  31. wilful

    Patrickb, it is one of the oddest and most unjustifiable policies of the coalition government. Yes, from 6 pm until close, every single train station will have a pair of “PSOs” (low rent, half trained coppers) armed with semi-automatic pistols. To do what I am not sure.

    Some stations have a total patronage in the low hundreds each day, they would have a dozen or so people alighting after dark. This is an absolute joke.

    They even had to reinstate or install working toilets on stations. But the toilets can’t be for the public, that would be too much common sense.

    Meanwhile, Victorian crimes against the person are static or declining (even though the subset of domestic assault is increasing), while property crimes continue to go through the floor.

    Truly a monumental waste of money.

  32. jumpy

    When i was last in Melbourne, i would have felt safer with a higher,more visible Police presence.
    All those Storm supporters copying their idols and all.
    Grappling, Chicken winging, Neck crunching……
    Even the children follow the idols ya know.

    ( apologies to folk that don’t follow NRL and the entire topic of the thread)

    Also, as far as stuffups go, Traveston dam failure could be considered a big expensive one (not votes but dollars)

  33. jumpy

    Then again, votes too. Original proposal cost em from one side and failure to deliver cost em on the other.

  34. Joe

    oh well wilful, maybe a loren-orda policy will actuallz work for once– considering the long term trend is already in the right direction. Getting tough on crime successfully, sounds like a winning move.

  35. John D

    The general public (and media) often doesn’t have a clue to the extent that something that goes wrong was due to incompetence of ministers, departments, individual public servants or things that are a consequence of a lack of voter support for the taxation levels required to provide enough money for departments to have the resources to be run properly. They also often don’t understand who is really responsible for what.
    This problem is not helped by oppositions who are busy trying to paint everything that goes wrong as “government incompetence” while diverting ministers to fighting attacks instead of getting on with things that they really should be doing.
    If you look at the Patel case the real problem was Howard’s decision to limit the number of Australian doctors being trained so that state governments had to scrabble around looking for doctors overseas to fill the gaps and help bring hospital waiting times back to a reasonable level.

  36. David Irving (no relation)

    John D @ 34, it was certainly partly Howard’s fault, but the Painters’ and Doctors’ Union had a fair bit of input as well. (Nothing they like better than a bit of restraint of trade … )

  37. Joe

    John D,

    yes, it’s an interesting question, the realtionship between voting intention and taxation levels. Perhaps the ACCC should introduce a rule, which would require each political party to publish the required tax rate required to meet their policy platform on the ballot sheet. Parties would then be held accountable at the next election. I wonder what effect this would have on the political system:

    Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot- proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.

    The spirit of computing is the spirit of bureaucracy and management (there’s a fairly direct lineage), but is the spirit of politics management?

  38. Chris

    David @ 35 – from the ABS website

    The ABS found that between 1986 and 2006, the number of general practitioners per 100,000 people increased from 152.6 to 178.6, the rate of specialists nearly doubled – from 57.7 to 92 – and dentist numbers went from 40.5 to 45.7 per 100,000 people.

    So perhaps the decrease in availability of doctors is a combination of people seeing doctors more and doctors working less hours? I’ve seen stats saying that the average number of hours that a GP works per week has dropped significantly over the last couple of decades).

  39. GregM

    My favourite stuff up story is from Victoria in the 1970s. It concerns the St Arnaud police station.

    St Arnaud is a splendid little town of about 3000 people in the Wimmera region in the west of Victoria. It is surrounded by wheat fields and little else. Its population is, overall, quite law-abiding and was so in the 1970s.

    The Victorian Public Works Department, for reasons best known to itself and the police department, built for the good people of St Arnaud a twenty-four person police station. Most towns in Victoria of 3000 would have been be lucky to have one copper, let alone twenty four.

    Meanwhile in St Albans, a suburb in the north west of Melbourne, with a population many times larger than that of St Arnaud, and growing rapidly, the twenty four or so police officers assigned to uphold law and order amongst its good people (and I am sure that they were no less law abiding, overall, than the people of St Arnaud) had to do with fairly basic and makeshift accommodation across three separate locations, including a private house rented out and converted to their use.

    When it was suggested to him that the promised St Albans police station had been built in St Arnaud by mistake the responsible Minister, if he can be called that, explained that his cunning plan was for the St Arnaud police station to be a regional centre for the police traffic operations group, which seemed pretty unlikely because St Arnaud is nowhere near any major highway.

  40. John D

    Bligh had this misfortune to have put a lot of effort into making Brisbane better prepared for droughts just before we had a rash of floods. Plus short voter memories and a shameless opposition.

  41. Shingle

    Barge @26, I think what you describe could be termed ‘can do-ism’, as distinct from the actual capacity to do something. With the latter, the proof is in the pudding, but with the former, it’s all about the appearance of getting things done – box ticking performance criteria as you say ‘on time, on budget’ etc but at the expense of functionality. Can do-ism is obviously not confined to (can do) Campbell Newman, as the state health payroll example shows, but there’s a reason he chose the moniker with its connotations of willing n’able practical know-how. But in the end, is can do-ism is just another form of image making? Or is there a genuine aspiration on the part of politicians and bureaucrats to be ‘the go-to guy’. In recent times I worked in a minor capacity for a project where various initiatives were described as ‘tools’ and ‘toolkits’… I found this language use interesting. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I thought such language could sometimes fool people into thinking that something is easier than it is – ‘hey – just pick up this tool and whack the problem’, kind of wishful thinking. I’m not sure how widespread this language use is as fortunately this was a one-off for me. When can do-ists start to believe their own propaganda it can be dangerous. Is there a fine line between the determined and the deluded? Perhaps the payroll mess was positive thinking gone wrong. Mind you, glitches seem to be almost a compulsory part of every IT overhaul, just this one had much worse consequences than usual. Sometimes I think it’s partly just that modernity means that everything is too big and complicated… and one must not forget: to err is human… :)