22/2/2010

Is there a way back?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:08 am

Listening to a very interesting program on Radio National the other day. We’re currently going through a series of scandals in Australian politics because the government rushed into place a policy to insulate millions of houses in a short period. Turned out a lot of the operators were shonky, using poor materials and poorly trained staff, and there have been electrocutions as people stapled the sheets of foil they were lying on into live electric wiring, and roof fires from poorly integrated solar panels…

Anyway, that’s background. The broader point being made on the program was that in the ‘olden days’, governments made policy, and public servants implemented them by directly providing services to the public. The chain was short, and public servants could feed back on the implementation process to the government, so there was good 2-way communication.

In the past couple of decades, there has been this huge push to privatisation and public-private-partnership models, largely based on the idea that the public sector is bloated and inefficient and the private lean, mean and productive. That’s been an ideological push, but it’s been pervasive, not just here but in most western democracies.

What that means, though, is that rather than providing services to the public, public servants are now administering contracts to people in the private sector, who then further subcontract for the actual service delivery. Instead of one step there are 2-3 (or more) in the chain, and the power relationships are all about ‘deliverables’ and contracts, not about 2-way information flow. The claims about efficiency are, of course, also being falsified, since everyone in each layer needs a cut, and more layers means more money going to middlemen and less to services.

The problem is, I’m not sure we can roll it back. It’s been an experiment, it’s failed in all the ways that count… but I suspect we’re stuck with it anyway.

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