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The more things change…

19 May 2022 at 8:59 am
David Crosbie
Regardless of who wins the election this weekend, it is important to remember that government departments and agencies can be very resilient. If we expect them to change, we need to think about how we can reward the behaviours we want them to adopt, writes David Crosbie.

David Crosbie | 19 May 2022 at 8:59 am


The more things change…
19 May 2022 at 8:59 am

Regardless of who wins the election this weekend, it is important to remember that government departments and agencies can be very resilient. If we expect them to change, we need to think about how we can reward the behaviours we want them to adopt, writes David Crosbie.

It was the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who came up with the saying, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In a few days’ time, Australia will have a different government. No-one can predict the outcome of the election with any great certainty. The result, as always, will come down to a dozen individual seats and local candidates, but even if the Coalition wins another “miracle” victory, and Scott Morrison remains prime minister, we know there will be new faces in both Houses of Parliament. Some of these new faces will be independents. There will also be a new Senate and different senators will be holding the balance of power.

While many in the sector are hoping the Labor party will be able to form government either in majority or with the support of the Greens and some independents, it is important to acknowledge that a change of government on its own does not guarantee a major shift in the legislative and economic environment that charities deal with. 

The same applies to our public service organisations and statutory bodies. A new government does not, in itself, change the way the Health Department or NDIA or Social Services or PM&C or any other agency administers their programs and their contracts with the charities sector. 

What we do know is that if Labor form government, they will seek to re-establish the kind of policy consultation infrastructure that the Abbott government dismantled eight years ago. For the first time in many years, charities may be invited to sit at the table where policies are being framed in critical areas like health, childcare, the environment, the arts, disability, education and employment, housing, aged care, the digital economy, emergency response, etc.

The shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh has already committed to establishing two new committees to guide charity policy development and implementation of policies. The work of these committees will be framed around a new blueprint grounded partly in a review of the 2010 Productivity Commission report into the sector:

Under our blueprint, an Albanese Labor government will establish the Not-for-profit Sector Expert Reference Panel to chart out a more productive future for Australian charities. Working with Treasury, business, philanthropy, volunteering and other key stakeholders, experts from the charity sector will work to produce a Sector Development Plan. This plan, which will identify priorities for the sector, will be developed through extensive consultation and will include economic modelling of future scenarios. It will also incorporate strategies to capitalise on emerging opportunities, and consider what could influence the sector’s capacity to respond to emerging risks and limitations.

The panel would be supported by an ongoing Building Community – Building Capacity Working Group. This group will help implement the panel’s recommendations, and help steward the charity and community sector in its role as frontline responders in building a reconnected Australia.

The shadow minister told the Pre-Election Forum at the Connecting Up Conference in Melbourne last week that both these new committees would be based within the Treasury.

CCA is a strong supporter of this policy from the ALP and we look forward to participating in this important work if it comes to fruition.

Being invited to have a say, take a seat at the table, have input into policy is both important and worthwhile. But it is only ever part of the story. Having input and developing sets of words is the start of the process, not the end. 

Whether there is an ALP government that encourages engagement and input, or a Coalition government that is less willing to directly involve charities in shaping policy, the ongoing challenge is to drive real change, particularly in the government departments and agencies that define the regulatory and economic environments in which we all have to work.

Most organisational change is grounded in a simple principle – what gets rewarded gets done. Sustained change is about changing what gets rewarded. The current system is perfectly designed to deliver what it currently delivers. 

While having an agreed policy or a well-developed initiative is a good start, achieving implementation is often much more challenging than developing the sets of words. 

Many years ago I was part of a group that developed a rigorous proposal to provide drug treatment programs to minor offenders in a way that would reduce both the prison population and levels of crime in the community, as well as saving money for the government. The social and economic benefits were both clear and significant. It was a win-win proposal for individuals, their families, the government, drug treatment agencies and the whole community. The proposal took almost a year to develop across multiple agencies, academics, experts and drug users themselves, but it was never implemented.

The Health Department wasn’t interested, because it would mean they had to spend more on drug treatment for people who would otherwise be in prison, but they argued they would gain none of the savings. The reality is that there are no rewards on offer for health bureaucrats who can find new ways to add to the ballooning costs of healthcare in Australia.

Corrections were not interested because they didn’t want to pick up the tab for a health program in the community (where does that end) and having less prisoners did not translate into budget savings within their department. Corrections were partly funded per capita – that is, the more prisoners they had the more money they were allocated. A successful diversion program would reduce their budget.

I could give many of these examples of failure to achieve positive change because the current systems actively discouraged the adoption of better practices. Government departments and agencies can be very resilient and if we expect them to change, we need to think about how we can reward the behaviours we want them to adopt. 

When the election result is finalised, many of us may be celebrating, and some may be very excited by the prospect of a more engaged and caring government, but the work to drive sustainable change within the context of a new parliament will only just be beginning, regardless of who wins power.

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

David Crosbie is the CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

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