Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to run down an essential service – adventures in the crazy world of Centrelink

Cuts to government support for arts and culture are part of a much wider pattern of assault on the historic nation-building role of government. Services that maintain a safety net for those who fall through the cracks of the social system are being steadily eroded as governments focus on cutting costs rather than maintaining revenue in a time when the economy and the population are both growing.

Government support for arts and culture in Australia has been badly affected by a series of cuts and restructures which have had widespread damaging effects on arts and culture organisations, especially the smaller and less powerful.

The changes to the Australia Council are only a small part of a series of actions which have impacted the broad arts and culture sector. The Creative Industries Innovation Centre closed its doors in 2015 after the Government declined to support it. This centre played a major role in support for Australia’s creative industries.

With strong reservations in the current Government about the role of Government services and the value of public assets, more and more changes are likely as outsourcing picks up pace. Unfortunately any potential value in the changes will be overshadowed by the ideological agenda against the role of government.

However, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the cuts to arts and culture do not even begin to compare to broader cuts in funding for important government and community services. In many ways it underlines the importance of the arts and culture sector seeking alliances beyond the sector. This cold provide both an array of community partnerships and support and partnerships with increasingly important economic allies.

One of the most important government services is Centrelink. Of late I have been developing a close one-on-many relationship with Centrelink as I fulfill my destiny of sorting out stuff for my elderly relatives.

It reminds me of dealing with Australia Post over many years. Everyone at Australia Post used to bend over backwards to help you – their customer service was impeccable and they were just nice people. The trouble is that if they couldn’t actually help you, no matter how hard they tried– and they couldn’t – it wasn’t good customer service at all. The problem was that their systems were so bad that even their own staff couldn’t get them to work.

When I lived in an apartment complex where letterboxes had been rifled, I paid to have my mail held while I was overseas for a couple of months. In that time more mail was delivered than was held – including new credit cards. Australia Post apologised and refunded the fees but that didn’t really help after the fact.

Resorting to work arounds
This is what Centrelink is like. To deal with their faulty systems – which must drive the staff who use them crazy – they have to resort to work arounds. Back in the days of Galileo the view of the Church was that the earth was the centre of the universe. Mounting bodies of evidence contradicted this. Faced with this scientists simply tear up the old theory and adopt a new one that explains the evidence. In contrast religions adopt work arounds that laboriously tack on more and more complex explanations for every inconsistency.

Centrelink needs to have photo ID for one of my relatives, even though they have been paying her a pension for 23 years. She has a passport – but it has expired because at 88 she is unlikely to need it any more and as a poor pensioner she can’t afford to pay to keep a passport current that she will never use. In the universe of Centrelink expired passports don’t count. ‘What about a license?’ they ask. Unfortunately she’s never had a license – buses were good enough for a real pensioner.

In the crazy world of failing public service systems that are being overtaken by reality, the only solution is a work around. The tick the box approach that is being fostered in the new deskilled public service can’t handle complexity. The test of any system – or policy, strategic plan, program – is how well it handles the unexpected, the unforeseen, reality. This looks like failure to me.

This article was originally published elsewhere in my blogosphere and has been revised for this blog.

See also

Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem
‘The issue of venue lockdown to deal with alcohol-fuelled assaults is becoming a major debate. Of course venue owners are concerned and their argument that the policy will affect the hospitality industry may well be valid – but that, by itself, is not enough. It comes down to how effective the approach is at addressing the problem and how badly the hospitality industry is affected. The question is how finely different kinds of venues are distinguished from each other in a strategy to reduce alcohol-related violence. Dealing with it was never going to be simple or easy. However, like all government policy, it’s all too easy to go for the one size fits all approach which might look good but not work’, Venue lockdown – a blunt instrument for a dire problem.

The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix
‘The heated response to the tax debate around negative gearing debate and capital gains tax shows that if political parties adopt a clear policy, in line with their core values and aligned with popular concerns, then get behind it and explain it, people will respond. For decades negative gearing has been distorting the shape of our cities, our suburbs and our communities. It is an inefficient way to achieve the desired result. These are historical tax distortions waiting for a fix’, The power of good policy – historical tax distortions waiting for a fix.

Unamerican Activities Committee
‘Reading reviews of the new film about the Hollywood screenwriter, Trumbo, I’ve been reminded of the legendary House UnAmerican Activities Committee, set up to hunt reds under the bed – especially screenwriters – in the US in the late 1940s and 50s. Only in America could I imagine something with such a bizarre name. What exactly were ‘unAmerican’ activities – did it include picking your nose in public or forgetting Mother’s Day?’, Unamerican Activities Committee.

Look after pedestrians and the economy will look after itself
‘Public transport is such a central element in a modern city. It has fundamental implications for how productive a city is, how culturally active and just how personally pleasant it is to live and work in’, Look after pedestrians and the economy will look after itself.

Travelling together through the city
‘Public transport is such a central element in a modern city. It has fundamental implications for how productive a city is, how culturally active and just how personally pleasant it is to live and work in’, Travelling together through the city.

Sydney - Australia's most valuable location but public transport its greatest weakness
‘A massive weakness only too familiar to anyone who lives in or has lived in Sydney could derail the whole positive effect of economic growth within different mega regions inside Greater Sydney and hold back innovation and economic productivity. This has serious implications not just for Sydney or New South Wales but for the national economy. Cities have always been serious business but this just got a lot more so’, Sydney is Australia's most valuable location but public transport is its greatest weakness.

Our capital cities are growing and produce most of our income
‘The city is a critical place for cultural life and for the diversity that propels it. It's interesting to see the overwhelming significance of cities in an economic sense as well’, Our capital cities are growing and produce most of our income.

The central importance of cities to the modern economy
‘It is becoming increasingly clear how important cities are in the contemporary economy. Underpinning this is the absolutely central importance of the growth of the knowledge economy and the innovation, collaboration and interaction it depends on. This is a reality that politicians have to grasp if we are going to see good policies that benefit Australia over the next decades. Unfortunately I think that many are still operating with a view of the economy which was out of date at least a decade ago’, The central importance of cities to the modern economy.

Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed
‘At first glance Marcus Westbury’s ‘Creating Cities’ book looks small, but it’s far bigger than it looks. The book is about re-energising cities by reinventing them but it’s starting point is a deep appreciation of the particular regional city of Newcastle. The revival of Newcastle is a reflection of the more general trend towards the revival of regional centres in Australia. Cities are crucial to the innovation and creativity that interaction and partnerships based on physical proximity can produce – whether major capital cities or regional cities. The efforts at revival all reflected the critical importance of cities. Each in its own way draws upon creativity and innovation and the cultural diversity which underpins it to create places which are pleasant and interesting to live in and to drive economic prosperity’, Creating cities by reinventing them – ‘Creating Cities’ reviewed.

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