Friday, July 23, 2010

Belshaw's World - round holes, square pegs and a region cruelled

My last column began a discussion on some of the reasons why Government so often failed the needs of people in general and country people in particular.

In that column I discussed the way in which priorities are set at state level. I suggested that current institutional structures worked against effective country development.

To illustrate my point, I focused on the way priorities are set on a state-wide basis, on problems of data and the way in which inter-acting decisions had compounding effects at local level. One example I used was the way in which reductions in local hospital facilities could result in reduced age care facilities because they meant the centre no longer met the service criteria required for the funding of those aged care facilities.

I also pointed to the way in which mechanistic projections based on past trends could entrench, bring about, those projections.

Problems are compounded by the use and misuse of performance indicators. The difficulty is that, by their nature, these are based on statistical measures that are in fact averages across broad geographic areas, a state or the nation. They ignore regional variation. Further, the indicators are often interdependent in ways that may be unclear.

Once you set an indicator, you are bound to try to achieve it. The practical effect is that resources will be devoted to activities likely to have the greatest impact on the indicator, and that generally means the bigger population centres.

The growing role of the Federal Government complicates matters further. It, too, centres its approach on indicators, those things that can be measured. However, it uses national indicators that then get broken down at state level. These can cross state-priorities.

Perhaps the greatest misuse of indicators at Commonwealth level lies in the blind application of ARIA, a statistical measure of remoteness. It has no validity beyond this. Yet the Commonwealth uses it to determine certain funding allocations and to measure progress.

Say you want to improve health services to rural people or provide certain types of housing or increase the proportion attending university.

The current Commonwealth approach is to target funding to some combination of ARIA classifications, remote plus very remote for example, or these two plus outer-regional. This creates arbitrary on-ground boundaries for service delivery and benefits that cut through regions. You may be eligible, an equivalent person 20k away, not.

But wait, it gets worse.

All Government agencies need boundaries for planning and service delivery purposes. Those boundaries are determined by particular service delivery and planning needs and vary from each other and over time.

Of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. However, it adds to an increasingly crazy patchwork on-ground quilt of policies, programs and structures, a quilt that lacks both vertical and especially horizontal integration.

Vertical integration means the way in which policies, programs and structures link from top to bottom. Horizontal integration refers to the way in which policies, programs and structures link across service areas and geography.

Present arrangements are increasingly bitsy and ad-hoc. There are no real mechanisms for achieving coordination within regions or between regions on matters of common interest.

I am very aware of these problems because of the work I have done at community and official levels and as a consultant. I see them all the time.

I began my last column by wondering how many Armidale people knew just how important the University of New England had been in providing the intellectual firepower that allowed us to challenge conventional wisdom on country and regional issues.

Knowledge is power. If we want effective regional development, then we have to be able to challenge conventional thinking through evidence.

Given the lack of horizontal integration, this has to be done at a broader regional level. So long as responses are locality, electorate or even narrow regional based they will fail.

They will also fail if they are just “country” or “regional” in the broad sense, for then they are likely to get caught in the same general geographic traps as current approaches. They have to be geographically specific.

The original strength of the University of New England from a Northern perspective lay in the commitment of its staff and its broader regional perspective. One of the tragedies of the failure of the networked university, but also one of its causes, lay in the loss of that broader perspective.

To my mind, the single most important short term solution to current ignorance about and neglect of Northern NSW and its needs lies in the creation of a properly funded research institute to generate the ideas and the information required to force changes in current policy approaches.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 21 July 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

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