Is management of public transport a mess?Posted: November 9, 2010
It seems the way management structures and processes are arranged is still the key public transport solution being advanced in the Victorian election campaign.
The first three points in the Green’s Six Point Transport Plan all relate to governance and management. Now the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has released this chaotic flowchart with the charge that “a hundred different organisations are running public transport in Victoria” (see first graphic).
The PTUA says the flowchart illustrates how difficult it is for the average person to work out who to contact with questions and problems. This is a brilliant and no doubt effective piece of politics, building on the glorious history of spaghetti diagrams like Barry Jones’ famous Knowledge Nation vision.
As I’ve argued before, I think management arrangements are a second order issue – there’re more important things to get right first. And I’m by no means arguing that current arrangements are ideal or can’t be improved.
But there are a number of reasons why this flowchart is not a fair and reasonable account of the way transport is managed in Victoria.
First, as pointed out by a commenter (Invincible) over at Skyscrapercity.com, this is a deceptive diagram – flow charts usually flow from top left to bottom right, otherwise they will always look misleadingly complex. Invincible has redrawn the same information in a more logical flow, producing a vastly simpler diagram (see second graphic).
Second, the numbers are exaggerated. Of the one hundred odd organisations the PTUA identifies, 77 are private bus companies. There are many localities in Victoria served by buses. A small, local operation is often better placed to meet community needs than a very large one covering all or a large part of the State.
Third, there are a number of organisations that seem to be included only for the purpose of adding apparent complexity. Can the existence of a completely independent organisation like Bicycle Victoria really be counted as evidence of unnecessary complexity in the way the Government is managing the transport portfolio? Likewise, the inclusion of a national organisation like Australian Rail Track Corporation is, at best, highly questionable.
Fourth, there are a number of non-transport organisations in the diagram, like the Police and local government, which couldn’t seriously be considered for rationalisation solely or primarily to meet transport objectives. In this context they would have to be regarded as a given no matter how the Transport portfolio itself were restructured.
Fifth, any difficulties the average person has in working out who to contact – what the diagram nominally shows – is not necessarily evidence that the management structure, with its attendant systems of accountability and communication, is lacking. It might be an easy cliché, but how easy it is to make contact is not necessarily a reliable measure of management effectiveness.
So I don’t think the PTUA’s flowchart really provides a fair assessment of the weaknesses in the way public transport is currently managed in Victoria.
It should also be noted that virtually all of the relevant functions in the PTUA’s diagram have to be provided, whether or not they are delivered by separate identifiable entities, or are collectively subsumed within a larger organisation.
The need to coordinate functions will still exist. While it might be argued that coordination would be easier within one organisation, there is a wealth of experience that says large organisations also have their downsides.
The idea of better integrating responsibilities and services is an important one – there are certainly plenty of examples in Melbourne where different modes are not harmonised.
But I don’t see much evidence that creating a new Public Transport Authority over the top of the existing structure is the silver bullet, as the PTUA and the Greens seem to think. It’s more important to get the right policies, the right relationships, the right resources and the right people.