Harmonising the government bureaucracy symphony


'Coordination' by Chris JohnstonThe Federal Government is using the word coordination a lot. And as part of the Queensland Government's election platform, it has announced that a new State Mental Health Commission is to have a role of coordinating services. Indeed, a major role of the new Federal Mental Health Commission will need to see coordination as one of its major preoccupations.

Beyond mental health we hear of the coordinating role of the Medicare Local system that is being developed across Australia. Additionally, in employment services, coordination of services is getting more attention.

I applaud these initiatives, but they could all come to nothing. More than that, they could precipitate further cynicism and mistrust from citizens who will see this as another good intention strangled by bureaucratic nonsense and political timidity, or merely as more hollow slogans.

The coordination of government services is important. If we are going to give the right services at the right time to people in need, governments must make sure services are integrated and targeted. If governments want to really see better health, mental health, education and employment outcomes, the integration and coordination of services is a huge issue that must be addressed.

As yet, such high-level effective coordination is not happening. So what needs to happen to bring it about?

The key is power. The giving and the use of power. The very thing that bureaucracy treasures and wants to keep to itself.

If coordinating bodies are going to be successful, governments must give them the power and authority to influence the priorities and work of various siloed departments and agencies. Coordination is more than good communication, linking agencies, or being more cooperative and sensitive. All this is good but is really a very superficial understanding of coordination.

The first sign of getting coordination right must come from our political leaders. The message must be given! We will delegate power and authority like we have never seen it in Australia. We will do it with transparency and all the appropriate safeguards and risk management procedures — but we will do it. We will take a calculated risk, because if we don't, this is going to be another failure.

Our senior bureaucrats must get this message. And part of the message must be that their performance will be judged upon their ability to bring about this culture shift: that real power will be shared; that coordinating bodies will be given the means to do their jobs effectively.

No doubt the Treasury and Finance Departments will find many reasons for this not to happen. But we need to break through. I believe the citizens of Australia will no longer tolerate governments who cannot exercise the authority to bring about good outcomes in the lives of citizens.

The second sign of getting coordination and integration right is that we start to develop what could become a new model for 21st century government.

Instead of having silo departments — e.g. an Education Department, a Health Department — a new structure is developed around commissions (like the emerging federal and state mental health commissions, Medicare Locals, or the former Social Inclusion Board in South Australia), which are given the power to monitor and oversee stated outcomes and goals agreed upon by government.

Like orchestra leaders they bring into the symphony of bureaucracy the right agencies and services at the right time and in the right harmony.

The third sign of getting coordination right, and this might be a long way off yet, is to see our departments of education, health, employment etc. transformed from closed silos into departments with responsibilities centred around a mix of key outcomes enunciated in a publicly noted strategic plan and to be achieved in a particular time frame.

When the time frame is up, the department comes to an end and resources are shifted to different goals to achieve more outcomes.

This would be complex and difficult to execute. But I hope politicians and bureaucrats reading this simply don't dismiss it as nonsense. Somehow I don't think the citizens of our nation would be so quick to say not to bother, and to leave things as they are. 

David CappoMonsignor David Cappo AO was chair of the South Australian Social Inclusion Board 2002-2011 and deputy chairman of the Australian Social Inclusion Board 2008-2011. 

Topic tags: David Cappo, social inclusion



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Existing comments

This is a serious problem that exists across all government departments and levels. All ministers have advisors and staffers who are basically well trained PR workers. What we need is people who are professionals with vast experience in sectors making decisions in their field of knowledge. What we have now is portfolio hopping politicians who have no idea on any given area which needs specific experise. We see it all the time when a minister makes a mess of for example health, they are then moved to environment ect. Within the running of the new Health Commission the government must look at giving power to people in key areas or we will just have a bureaucratic jungle with no one knowing what is going on. I fear the main aim of any solely government run health omission will be departmental budgets and not social welfare. So basically Australians can expect more of the same under a different banner.

Paul Belci | 06 February 2012  

Thank you Paul Belci for articulating so clearly the problems associated with government bureaucracy, particularly of the socialist ilk that feels a need to impose a philosophy and distrusts power over which it has no control eg allowing educationists to determine education and doctors, healthcare. We have seen in this country the deplorable loss of standards in school education, our universities and health care that have come from bureuacratic interference with the independence of these institutions. Coordination (co-operative administration people like Marx and Stalin called it) needs control.We've been there Mons Cappo with disastrous consequences. Why can we not simply preach social justice, lead by example and give up trying to impose personal philosophies on everyone else? We certainly should not "leave things as they are". There is so much damage to repair not only in our Catholic Church (I am not a restorationist) but also in our Western civilisation.

john frawley | 06 February 2012  

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