The Wild West ... the outback ... The new world of the 1800s was a time of true liberty. People stood on their own merits. They won or they lost and they reaped the rewards or swallowed the consequences. There were no cubicle dwelling civil servants hell bent on saving you from yourself. No planning permits no licenses no permissions no heritage overlay no bylaw no regulators no inspectors. And guess what ... it worked

This site is set up to provide a forum for a number of like minded professional economists to post and comment on contemporary issues. There are a number of regular contributors whose bios are made available on the site. Most if not all of these contributors use a pseudonym for the simple reason that they are practicing economists who must take into consideration the commercial implications of posting their opinions.

While some may feel that this is a bit of a gutless approach it is the only way we can ensure free and open discussion without jeopardising our paycheques.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I need to wipe my bottom (Roy Rodgers)

Excuse me; I think I need to wipe my bottom.

The general public and other interested parties are encouraged to comment on the intended wiping, either by written submission or by attending one of the many public hearings to be held prior to the wipe. If you wish to express an opinion on how I should wipe it, please respond to my issues paper via a written submission. The issues paper includes a full cost benefit analysis of the wiping and outlines a number of alternative methods that may be adopted in the wipe itself.

The above scenario is patently absurd. However, if we are all honest little bureaucrats we have to admit to ourselves that somewhere in our not to distant past similar irreverent thoughts or possibly ones much more profane than a simple bottom wipe crossed our mind when that word ‘consultation’ was uttered.

Consultation, consultation and more consultation. This one word has the power to render bureaucrats speechless from either pure cubicle humping delight or alternatively from absolute dread (depending on their level of residual humanity).

I have to admit that after 10 years of participating in public consultation at both the commonwealth and state levels of government I fall well and truly in to the group associated with dread.

Why dread? In theory consultation is intended to provide both accountability and transparency in government, both of which are very noble and desirable things. In reality, at least in my version, it is very questionable whether it is effective at providing either of these things.

Why doesn’t it work? Let’s start at the beginning. There are basically two types of public consultation, that which is disingenuous or alternatively that which is well intentioned. Neither category provides outcomes consistent with the stated dream of enhanced accountability and transparency.

Disingenuous consultation doesn’t work because it is basically a lie. It is the subversion of public consultation by the consulter in order to serve their polemic needs. Disingenuous consultation provides a vehicle for bureaucrats to engage in one of the following:

- Finding someone else to blame for their own stupid ideas. When policy goes wrong, and the community starts complaining, who better to blame for the causal idea but the community itself … Hey buddy calm down it was your suggestion in the first place

- Projecting false impartiality. This is a somewhat more subtle concept. The basics are that the bureaucrat has already determined exactly what it is he or she wants to do however it’s much more marketable if it appears that the ideas came from the community. … During consultation both X and Y raised the possible option of responding to this particular concern by instituting a policy of such and such. Given that these proposals are consistent with good governance frameworks and broader policy objectives and have the backing of the community the Department has endorsed such and such. Any Department that regularly engages in consultation will have established extensive databases that collate and organise public submissions and are designed to facilitate this exact behavior.

- Undermining future opposition to policy …Hey buddy what’s your problem? You didn’t raise any objections during our consultation program. It’s a bit late to start complaining now! No excuses, our program was widely targeted and extensively advertised in the Government Gazette.

On the other side of the coin, bureaucrats may be well intentioned and may genuinely be seeking feedback on issues. But the reality is that however well intentioned the consultation program is it inevitably turns to mush and will 99% of the time provide outcomes that range from the simply inefficient to the grossly undesirable. The reason being that the process gets distorted by the ‘who cares factor’.

The ‘who cares factor’ implies that normal people, despite their rhetoric, very rarely if ever actually attend a public consultation event or go that step further and actually be motivated enough to submit a written response. Normal people are usually quite busy and after a hard days work the very last thing most normal people want to do is to attend a 2 hour session on a government proposal for something as mundane as wiping a bottom or alternatively something as scintillating as extending clearway times. After all, we all know the city is growing, that there are more cars on the road and that the majority of shops don’t open till 10am … so it’s a no brainer, of course we are going to get those clearways, they don’t need us to put in an appearance at the local RSL hall……WRONG.

The problem is that our well intentioned bureaucrat is going to turn up to his workshop to hear what the community wants, he will stand in front of the half empty town hall or RSL function room and present his proposal to a group of people who will inevitably fall into one or all of the following categories:

- The nutjob. This somewhat disruptive but often amusing participant will provide feedback along the following lines … Mr Bureaucrat your presentation gives me much concern. I don’t think you fully appreciate the effect such a policy will have on afghan asylum seekers (bureaucrat thinks to himself, don’t really get the connection between wiping my arse and Afghanistan, but I am a bit nervous someone might call me racist) and I’m deeply concerned that not once did you mention the full anal probing the aliens gave me last night (bureaucrat thinks to himself, ahhhhh …nutjob).

- The happy clapper. This participant is of the ‘I know best’ mold or the ‘I need to save you from yourself’ school of thought. They usually have their own agenda. The most common are those that seek to reduce the amount of sin the rest of us are wallowing in, those seeking to save the environment by sanctifying each and every botanical lifeform they can (with the exception of humans), and those seeking to preserve our heritage (cause if its old it must be better). This individual will invariable insist that the bureaucrat do something ridiculously pointless … like recycle their own toilet paper.

- The vested interest. This participant generally has a strong commercial stake in the policy proposal. Nothing is more motivating than money. They are inevitably well organized effective communicators and very difficult to dismiss. Whether this group is a problem or not will depend on the nature of the policy being proposed. The general rule is that they are most distortive where the costs associated with the policy are tightly concentrated but the benefits are widely distributed and the amount of benefit accruing to each individual is relatively small. For example, it is highly unlikely that working mums and dads will attend the clearway workshop, even though they are the ones who have to sit through the morning and afternoon traffic jams. However, you can bet your next paycheque that the shop owners enroute (particularly those that open before 10) will be there.

And at the end of his session the bureaucrat will go back to his cubicle and ponder for a little while just how bizarre the public is and how alone he feels (this will take roughly 10 minutes) after which he will inevitably play spider solitaire for a good 2 hours, at which point he will then make himself a cup of coffee and sit down and start rewriting the governments policy proposal so that it accurately reflects the wishes and desires of the nice bunch of freaks he met down at the town hall. After all who is he to question the group wisdom of the ‘community’?

And I should know, because for a long time I was that bureaucrat.


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