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Monday, February 01, 2010

No sign of imminent humbling for arrogance of power

A couple of readers drew my attention to Humbling power's arrogance by Malcolm Knox in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday in which he draws on John Keane (The Life and Death Of Democracy) and ANU academic Dr Janine O'Flynn in suggesting "greater transparency is not necessarily an unalloyed good:
"In public sector areas where the public's demand for hard data is greatest - schools' performances, hospital waiting times, timeliness of trains and buses - the risk is highest that the pressure to provide transparent information will interfere with the performance of basic functions. ''More accountability can mean less efficiency'' is how O'Flynn explains this tension. ''There has been a huge increase in reporting and performance focus which stretches organisations which are also expected to deliver an efficiency dividend.'' Within the health, education and transport bureaucracies in particular, she says, ''there is a real risk'' that the demands of providing transparent information can paralyse the very functions that are being measured. ''Every public sector organisation is trying to find this balance, between performing the actual functions and 'performing the performance'.''
There is a point here, and it should be the subject of more discussion and debate.

But it's been a familiar theme for years that efficiency is said to suffer as a result of public sector requirements for transparency and accountability ( and a whole range of integrity, equity and related processes.) This often then leads to a call to do away with some of the encumbrances that stop the public sector being as cost- efficient (ahem) as private sector organisations. Critics of Freedom of Information for example often cite cost ($30 million in total for the Federal Government last year). Measuring benefits-or the cost of not having such laws- is hard;  comparisons with the hundreds of millions spent on government information and PR activities usually don't rate a mention.

The public sector must manage functions in the way we expect such functions to be managed in a modern democratic society, and to achieve measurable public policy outcomes in the most efficient way possible.  Meaningful transparency in the conduct of those functions should help guard against simply "performing the performance."  There are pitfalls in performance measurement, and there needs to be some  limit on transparency in the interests of good government.  Generally we're a long way from the danger point.

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