Sunlight A Starting Point for Council And Public Sector Reform

When I asked Leichhardt Council (NSW) to respond to questions about performance and constantly received the answer “We do not collect that information”, it became obvious that the Sunlight Test applies to performance management as much as to unethical behaviour.

The Sunlight Test (sometimes Sunshine Test), originally defined by US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis in Other People’s Money – and How Bankers Use It  (1914) is simple: Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

The principle is that if you can’t let your peers or the public see your behaviours, then there may be something questionable about them.

When public sector agencies – departments, local councils, independent agencies or Ministerial offices –  refuse to report publicly on performance, or are incapable of doing so, then it is clear something is wrong. Not collecting basic management information shows as much incompetence as overspend or staff fraud.

My experience with GIPA (equivalent to FOI) requests from Leichhardt Council – where I asked for basic performance information in Assessment and Planning, Legal Services, Human Resources and other areas – was that the simplest way for an agency to avoid accountability is to manage so badly that they have no information that is in any way relevant.

If we are serious about public sector performance, and public sector reform, then we must embrace performance management through transparency. Public accountability is one of the few paths to public sector improvement because of guaranteed Council rate income, minimal internal incentives to improve, internal customers with no power, and a culture that values secrecy and risk aversion.

Throw in a visceral dislike for market competition – as is evident in the People’s Republic of Leichhardt – and sunlight is the only tool ordinary voters have.

If we’re going to have league tables, how about one showing which councils collect any information that allows them to report on key aspects of performance, and which ones don’t? That’s much more important at the first pass than arbitrary KPI numbers.

If you answer all queries with “We don’t collect that information”, then the quality of managerial performance is clear.

One of the great benefits of public competition is shame. Public transparency on management performance – real, broad-based management information, not the manipulable KPIs we currently endure in NSW on Development Application approval times – leads to public shaming of poor performers.

And that’s important, because there are really only two ways recalcitrant performers improve when all internal paths have been exhausted: either by shaming them into performing, or competing them into non-existence.

Political mumbling about reducing redtape and improving public sector performance should be read for what it is, and what history suggests it will achieve. Nothing.

Senior Leichhardt Council officers have been talking about redtape reduction with local business groups for months, if not years. Change? Precisely zero. Motivation for the talk? So Council can tick a box as having consulted with business while continuing to shaft it at every opportunity.

And as much as I respect NSW Senator Arthur Sinodinos and Kelly O’Dwyer MP – and I do believe they will be among top performers in an incoming Coalition government at the Federal level – all Federal Opposition talk about redtape in general terms is pretty much theatre until the governing rubber hits the road.

Until there are specific, down-and-dirty proposals at the level of individual programs, I have no faith that much will change. We have to be honest about government performance. The public sector is good at creating words that give the impression of action and change. If you’ve ever read the response to a Ministerial letter you’d know how good.

That concern applies across levels of government: local, state and federal.

The standard mode of operation – inquiries, reports, high-level policy – is exactly the wrong approach.

I often talk about John Seddon and his work in the UK public sector, because we have much to learn from his experience (disclosure: I too, have a Kaizen, TQM and Six Sigma background – and am deeply suspicious of consultants hiding behind methods).

What he, as we, have found, is that rolling out arbitrary KPIs to drive accountability can be completely counterproductive. Why? Because the KPIs are generally crap. Because they are focused on head office needs, not customer needs. Because staff apply them rigidly to meet their performance targets and their client needs aren’t rigid. So their clients lose. And, as we have seen in Leichhardt Council, the incentives and opportunities to game the system are huge.

What counts is, as I’ve said, publicly-accountable, down-and-dirty, process-specific changes. Giving real power to manage to individual managers. Giving real control to managers over their budgets and ownership of budget savings. Giving managers the tools to see how their process and staff perform. Splitting budgets from headcount so there is real incentive to manage staff frugally.

And individual process changes that eliminate all the crap that has accumulated over years: duplicate steps; excessive checking; print, sign, scan and email confirmations; additional staff to cover workload driven by a broken process, which creates yet more work; shadow systems; information hoarding driving extra work…the list is endless, but it is concrete, identifiable and changeable.

I hate to say it, because it is a commercial promo for what we do. But Big 4 consultancies on redtape reduction and IT tools to improve PS productivity are a total waste. Managerial culture, managerial quality, managerial incentives and managerial courage in the public sector is where the action is. IT failure in the public sector? Expected. Efficiency drives that produce little? Expected.

We need to work where it matters, by providing PS managerial structures that let good people exercise their on-the-ground knowledge of how their processes are failing, and what their clients and customers need. And let those good people put good people in the places they need to be.

High level policy papers aren’t going to do that. Policy by press release isn’t going to do that. It’ll take real Ministerial, and real managerial courage.

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