Is Victoria’s new public transport authority just the beginning?Posted: December 2, 2010 | |
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.