Will changing management arrangements give us better cities?

Counting votes - Federal election 2010

Almost everybody, it seems, from political parties to academics, think tanks and planning experts, reckons the key priority for improving planning and public transport in Melbourne is to reform the way they’re managed.

The clamour for revised governance arrangements in order to effect reform has been increasing in Melbourne, with groups like the Committee for Melbourne, the Greens, the Public Transport Users Association and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia agitating for change.

It’s therefore sobering to see the Grattan Institute pointing out that reformed governance arrangements are not a silver bullet. The Director of the Institute’s Cities program, Jane-Frances Kelly, makes the point that:

the evidence from successful overseas cities does not support the idea that changing governance structures will help. In the successful cities we examined, no one type of governance was dominant. Unnecessary changes to governance structures can also be a distraction from the things that are vital. In short, changing structures is no cure-all.

I must say this is consistent with my experience of Government.

One of the things it seem to be especially good at is perpetually restructuring, reconfiguring, abolishing, renaming and creating new organisations, committees, authorities, boards, departments, companies and accountabilities.

Yet it is not at all clear that the sort of near-continuous institutional restructuring that goes in on many State governments (Victoria is actually not as bad as most) – as Ministers and CEOs change, with new visions and ideas – has created any consistent improvement in the way policy is developed or services are delivered.

Observers tend to note the occasional apparent successes but ignore the more numerous failures (i.e. at best, no improvement). And where there is an apparent success, they rarely look to see if there are other more significant underlying causes.

Let me be clear that the way activities are managed is important. But achieving good outcomes has much less to do with formal governance structures than it has with other factors like the personalities of the key players, as well as a host of largely serendipitous dynamics that create a receptive climate for reform.

The late John Paterson, who often spoke publicly about his successful introduction of radical water pricing reforms in the Hunter Valley water authority in the 1980s, always (modestly) emphasised that the key reason for the success was the strong, unwavering support of a committed and influential Minister, Paul Landa.

Landa was an unusual politician. He was unaligned factionally and a reformer by nature. He was also extraordinarily charismatic and popular with the public. But that would probably not have been enough by itself to implement a policy that on the face of it was anathema to the Labor Members representing the working class electorates of Newcastle.

Landa’s special advantage was that he had a close relationship with the Left of the NSW ALP, who were courting him to succeed Neville Wran as Premier. This relationship gave him the leeway to implement the then-radical water pricing reforms. None of these factors have anything to do with management arrangements.

To the extent that they do matter, there are also dangers in how management arrangments are set-up. For example, according to The Age, most groups are pushing for public transport to be managed by a more autonomous authority. But they need to take note that authorities like, for example, Vicroads and the former MMBW, frequently attract the charge that they are running their own agendas.

There’s an old dilemma here. Greater autonomy from political processes presents an increased danger that policy becomes more remote from the demands of the electorate and interest groups.

Governance matters, but it isn’t the main game. It’s not the key obstacle to getting better planning policy and better transport policy. Or better program delivery. That’s a pity really – if only it were that simple.

7 Comments on “Will changing management arrangements give us better cities?”

  1. Riccardo says:

    John Paterson was famously beneficial in the old Department of Human Services – and squeezed through rational policy in the narrow window the Kennett government created for it.

    But that said, this blog is reading like a pro-ALP, pro-political establishment piece. Especially this bit “There’s an old dilemma here. Greater autonomy from political processes presents an increased danger that policy becomes more remote from the demands of the electorate and interest groups.”

    Why would you want something to be responsive to the electorate or interest groups? Better for it not to be. Democracy is a sham; and any voting system is at best a flush button on the system of government, flushing the corrupt and inept down every so often into the political sewers.

    It is a device for getting rid of the worst of government, but not for selecting the best. A Singapore-style relatively benign authoritarian democracy would be better.

  2. Riccardo says:

    Your blog – draw your line anywhere you like. But don’t pretend to me that the current system is working.

    There must be a dozen Latin phrases and several common English ones that describe the feeling of looking at Singapore and seeing something that is self-evidently working better than here.

    It doesn’t matter whether you like Singapore or would want to live there. Crude measures of standard of living and efficiency are sufficient of themselves when the disparity is so high. It would only be between cities of much similar levels of efficiency or comfort where I would use the finer measures.

  3. jack horner says:

    In the linked article, the examples of the poor management of Melbourne’s public transport as an integrated network speak for themselves. The criticisms by the Public Transport Users Association are well justified.

    A single authority is needed to be responsible for delivering an integrated network service with a single brand and marketing. It can contract out actual service provision behind the scenes as much as it likes, as is done in Perth.

    Fob off statements by the minister and the Metlink chief are predictable given that the present dysfunctional arrangements have occurred on their watch.

    The Grattan institute’s comments on community involvement in city strategic planning are a different topic.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t disagree that there are serious problems with the way public transport operates. The Minister’s reaction is entirely predictable as you say.

      But it doesn’t follow that changing management structures is going to address those problems. The problems have much deeper causes.

      The Grattan Institute’s report is very much about management arrangements. Community involvement is an example of one of the other things that has to be gotten right in running cities ahead of management structures.

  4. […] I’ve argued before, I think management arrangements are a second order issue – there’re more important things to […]

  5. […] up the new authority is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for addressing the problems of public transport. What matters above all else is getting the right […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s