Don’t ask, don’t tell policymaking

Imagine a corporate reporting season where all listed company CEOs said, “Look, there’s no point in providing performance targets – markets are too volatile, it’s simply too hard to pick trends, and besides, if I provide you shareholders with targets, you’ll hold me to them.”

The chorus of calls for mass CEO sackings would be universal. And yet, this is the modus operandi of most Australian governments.

One state Treasurer said to me: “There’s no way we would release policy performance targets, people would expect us to meet them.”

For bureaucrats and politicians, “accountability equals punishment”.

That’s why you won’t find many governments publishing blueprints of economic progress, well-being, prosperity, or pretty much anything really.

Most politicians would bridle at this accusation. They’d claim they seek a mandate at regular elections and announce budgets that summarise programs of action.

However, budgets and election platforms are largely a mishmash of unrelated promises. They are not strategic plans, nor do they represent a joined-up, coherent set of objectives that pass any modern test of strategic thinking or management.

One wonders why so many pollies routinely repeat the “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” mantra.

A slew of unrelated objectives scattered across dozens of media releases and policy documents is not a strategic blueprint. When you hear policy-makers intone the merits of ‘integrated’ and ‘holistic’ programs, it’s safe to assume they mean ‘ad hoc’.

The Federal Government’s 52 separate policies on cities are a pointed example. Don’t bother asking how they add up to higher economic, social or natural capital.

The advantages of a strategic blueprint are particularly critical to governments facing a loss of faith in community institutions – what some people call a “social recession”.

A prosperity blueprint represents a compact of mutual interests – a platform for mobilising disparate community and business groups as well as governments (and their warring departments) themselves.

A joined-up blueprint assists governments allocate scarce resources on a more rational basis and better drive the machinery of government.

A strategic blueprint driven by clear targets helps detect clashing government policy goals.

A blueprint based on measurable targets will also lift the quality of public policy debate, especially when placed in the context of intergenerational challenges.

Finally, a blueprint based on targets improves accountability.

The South Australian Strategic Plan provides a model. It covers six categories of performance – community, prosperity, environment, health, education and ideas.

Linking the categories are 77 specific performance targets which are audited (independently) every couple of years to reveal whether progress toward targets has been achieved or is on track. (See breakout box below.)

Tasmania tried much the same thing based on 12 performance categories and 69 benchmarks. Unfortunately, the most recent TasTogether report card exposed serious underperformance. That’s why the Tasmanian plan is following the Tassie Tiger into extinction.

Some local governments, such as New York City, are giving targets a go. However, they tend to focus on a single issue, such as sustainability.

One of Peter Costello’s outstanding legacies was the Federal Government’s regular Intergenerational Report (IGR), which examines the impacts of demographic change on national efforts to improve prosperity.

The most recent IGR showed that income taxes will double in real terms by 2050 unless we better manage population growth, increase workforce participation and boost productivity.

The IGR should be embraced as a call to action and a spur to setting strategic performance targets.

We need similar IGRs for all states, territories and local governments or face economic and social bankruptcy in an ageing, low-growth society.

A nationwide set of IGRs might even guide more coherent thinking by the Council of Australian Governments.

Targets inform and support policy discourse – they don’t replace the value of visionary rhetoric and mandate building.

After all, Chifley’s tocsin call was to a “light on the hill”, not a visibility enhancing appliance perched atop a distant elevated landform – KPI: 12,000 lumens.

Targets represent nation-building goals couched in a common language of prosperity that chimes with community aspirations.

How can we possibly debate the future, let alone run a country, without them?

South Australian 2020 Targets – snippets

  • Increase the number of working post-60-year-olds by 10 percentage points
  • Increase regional population by 20,000 people to 320,000
  • Increase the value of mineral production to $10 billion
  • Maintain Adelaide’s rating as the least costly place to do business
  • Exceed Australia’s ratio of business investment as a percentage of the economy (by 2014)
  • Increase the value of SA’s export income to $25 billion
  • Increase the number of apprenticeship completions by 20 percent
  • Reduce waste to landfill by 35 percent
  • Increase angel/venture capital investment to 100 projects (from 15).