Is Victoria’s new public transport authority just the beginning?

Establishing the Victorian Public Transport Development Authority before Christmas is a smart move by the new Government. Such early action signals its commitment to tackling the problems with public transport.

But the Premier and the Minister for Public Transport should not get too carried away – as so many others have – with the idea that changing management arrangements is the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for.

 

Setting 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 leadership, the right policies, the right resources and the right people.

The people aspect is by and large the least problematic area for improvement. Of course there are exceptions, but the great bulk of senior public servants across Australia at both Federal and State level are intelligent, committed, practical and hard working executives.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the weak link in the quality of public administration in Australia isn’t usually the public servants but rather the politicians. As clever as it was, I think the TV series, Yes Minister, did public administration a great disservice by portraying the public service as self interested and manipulative –  and politicians as hapless and dim witted.

The reality today is that Ministers are almost always both smart enough and capable enough. The reason effective administration goes off the rails is that they are also usually even better at politics – and that’s a train that runs to a different timetable.

We’ll get the best outcomes for public transport if the Premier and the Minister are good leaders. That is, if they are adept at handling the politics of the portfolio in a way that is consistent with advancing the real needs of Victoria’s travellers.

It’s much easier to give way to the sniping of political opponents and the media, whose primary motivation is opportunistic, than to prosecute effective policy. Good leaders however can manage these pressures and produce good outcomes for the electorate.

We’ll probably have to wait and see how good the Government is on that score. But even ordinary leaders can make the effort to get the policy settings right. The Government will need to see through the spin, self-interest and unreflective thinking of the various lobbies and identify what Melburnians really want, really need and what they can afford.

The big gains won’t come so much from restructuring management arrangements as from getting those policy settings right. The Government will need to exercise great care here. What’s best for existing and prospective public transport users, as well as for Victorians as a whole, won’t necessarily be found in the prescriptions and nostrums of well-meaning but sometimes misguided public transport advocates.

In fact one of the things the Government should do sooner rather than later is formulate a policy framework to guide its decision-making on the transport and planning portfolios. The thing to avoid of course is a mere list of priority projects or another set of motherhood statements about high level values.

I’m not saying that all management structures are the same. Some are indeed better than others, so by all means get the best. But I am saying that it’s only a small part of the plan. It should be kept in perspective.

VicRoads is often held up as an example of how a statutory authority can push its barrow, but whatever success its had (and that’s arguable) is only incidentally about the way it’s structured. It might surprise some people to learn that VicRoads is not managed by a board of independent directors. It’s a statutory authority where the CEO reports to the Minister via the Secretary of the Department of Transport. The vaunted WA transport authority is structured in a similar way.

I’m saying set up the new management arrangements and then move on to the real challenges. Those challenges are partly operational – improved coordination, maintenance, etc – and partly about determining what’s the best way to invest in transport infrastructure for the future.


10 Comments on “Is Victoria’s new public transport authority just the beginning?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    Blog content and advice a new Minister should definitely read Alan. Well said. Your years of experience have obviously added up to some simple but excellent insights into the way government does work, but also how it can work to best effect … for its most important constituents.

  2. jack horner says:

    “The thing to avoid of course is a mere list of priority projects or another set of motherhood statements about high level values.”

    This describes well the NSW Government’s attempts at transport planning over the last decade, most recently the ‘Metropolitan Transport Plan’ February 2010

  3. A few questions Alan.

    1) Who currently writes (not approves) timetables for each mode? (hint, it’s not the DoT!)
    2) Is VicRoads or TransPerth under direct control of the Government of the day?
    3) Is the Department of Transport under direct control of the Government of the day?

    Another point, and I’m going to borrow a quote from an older post of yours for this “In the successful cities we examined, no one type of governance was dominant”. I whole heartedly agree that there are a range of management structures that can work. There isn’t one system that is dominate in good operations.

    However just as there are a range of management structures will work, there is also a range that won’t work and Melbourne’s current modal falls into one of these structures.

    Any governance modal that does not have a central body planning and coordinating timetables will not work.

    Any modal where operators are paid based on passenger numbers will encourage competition between operators, not coordination.

    Certainly a restructuring is not necessarily a silver bullet to fixing the issues we face and could be bungled completely, Melbourne has already seen significant restructuring twice since the early 1980s and neither of these efforts have fixed anything.

    However considering The Liberals, The Greens, Metro, former Connex and Yarra Trams bosses, the PTUA, Infrastructure Australia and other PT experts all think we do need a coordinating body, you’re in the minority thinking it’s unimportant and not necessary.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The need for better coordination and how to get it shouldn’t be conflated with the claimed need for a new management body. The first is a real need, the second is largely about political symbolism.

      The former Government insisted it had such a body – we know it didn’t work properly. The reason it didn’t work wasn’t primarily because of some failure in Organisation Design 101 but because of the sorts of underlying factors I’ve discussed above. A key factor according to Lazanas and Stone was a policy and philosophical commitment to a market-based solution.

      • I still fail to see how you believe coordination will happen if there isn’t a single body that is in charge of at the very least timetables.

        True the DoT could have turned around and said to the various operators, “you must coordinate timetables between each other” but for them to have done so, the end result would still have been a new body/board/organisation/etc that was in charge of this.

      • Alan Davies says:

        You do need coordination.
        You do need someone or something to manage that coordination.
        That doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate “authority” – it could be for example a unit within DoT.
        The fact of having a unit or an authority doesn’t guarantee you’ll get better coordination or even necessarily make it significantly more likely.
        What matters is recognising the importance of the goal (leadership and policy) and giving it priority (resourcing).
        Because its become an election issue, I expect the new Government will give coordination a high priority.

      • But a separate unit within the DoT that takes over the jobs that were currently performed by private operators would still be a restructuring!

        Your argument essentially is that restructuring needs to take place, it simply doesn’t need to be called as such!

      • Alan Davies says:

        “Taking over jobs from the private operators”!! Julian, there’s evidently some disconnect here. I’m not arguing for or against restructuring per se. See my last para.

      • Perhaps “a separate unit within the DoT that performs the roles that were currently performed by private operators” would have been a better way to say it.

        Either way, if a department within the DoT, or group made up of all private operators or a new authority is to perform coordinated timetables, then a restructuring has to happen somewhere, because currently no one is responsible for coordinated timetables, and they aren’t going to write themselves.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Have to totally agree with Alan … restructuring and changing titles/letterheads for years in Australia’s public services has been used for the most political and usually self defeating and often counter-productive purposes.

    The worst instances often being the simple desire to remove one or more executives and replace them with others, who may or may not be an improvement of any real importance.

    As always in our totally politicized and increasingly ‘corrupted’ world, actions and results ALWAYS speak far louder than words and announcements concerning structural ‘reforms’ or changes.


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