Monthly Archives: December 2014

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Abbott Government Reshuffle Sets Up A Battle Of Whys

Photo: Charles Haymond U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia

Photo: Charles Haymond U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia

As the new Abbot Ministry ages, commentary about the reshuffle and it’s implications has remained depressingly shallow, mostly mere regurgitation* of the Government’s talking points; analysis has been almost non-existent.

This is the best I’ve spotted so far, because it includes research, depth, thought, evaluation, nuance and analysis**: – it is well worth a close read***.

With the poor standing of the Abbott Government in polls, now consistent and long-standing, they’re obviously in need of change: a change of direction / policy / priority, a circuit breaker, improved communications, or other options, depending on where you see their problem lying.

If this report is correct Prime Minister Abbott and his advisors have decided their problems are principally with communications:; we’ll know soon enough, if the predictions in James Massola’s article are borne out.

When you hold the Massola article up to Paula Matthewson’s, you see a consistent picture: a Government committed to their political and ideological agenda, and convinced they can recover their standing with voters by better explaining what they are about.

This makes the run-up to Australia’s next Federal Election a fascinating contest between utterly incompatible views: whether current poor polling numbers for the Abbott Government reflect:

  • discontent with what the Government are doing or how they are doing it, vs.
  • misunderstanding of what they are doing and why.

The next election is likely to tell us which explanation is true.


*  I imagine the Government isn’t as depressed about this as am I.
**  Unlike most Australian reporting and commentary …
***  as is a lot of Ms Matthewson’s stuff:

Reshuffled Australian Government

Tony-AbbottOn 21 December 2014, Prime Minister Abbott reshuffled his Ministry.

Here is a link to a PDF file with the new portfolios and Ministers, and with changes annotated

Here is a link to the previous Ministry

Here is a link to the Prime Minister’s announcement

The big losers were Arthur Sinodinos, Brett Mason and David Johnston – all of whom left the Ministry.

New faces are Christian Porter, Kelly O’Dwyer and Karen Andrews.

While some of the other moves are of great interest and significance for both individual portfolios and overall Government strategy, the biggest winner is clearly the new Minister for Health, The Hon Sussan Ley MP, who is promoted into Cabinet, the second woman member of the current Cabinet.


Here’s some media commentary on the reshuffle, much of which is shallow, off the point, and/or pandering:


Mysterious & Mysteriouser

flying blindEvery observer of Government or politics has been flummoxed, sometime, by a decision: unable to envisage how it came about.

It might be the winner of a tender, the rejection of a development proposal, or a tweaked policy or program, but we shake our heads and ask “What made them do that?

And often enough we never know the full story, even when we think we do.  Unless we’re right inside the process, it’s almost impossible to know what has influenced the decision, and what hasn’t.

As said Horace:
Amphora cœpit instituti; currente rota cur urceus exit?
A vase is begun; why, as the wheel goes round, does it turn out a pitcher? **

You need to know what might turn your vase into a pitcher!

If you want a particular decision from Government, you have to ensure you know as many as possible of those influences, accommodate or rebut them as far as possible, and perhaps create a few of your own.

For example, if you’re a residents’ action group seeking to block a development, you’ll need to know whether the developer has credibility or a bad record, whether the environmental assessment is thorough, who supports the development, and whether the Premier has ever taken her children for a walk through there.  There are other suggestions about different kinds of influences here and here and here.

The bottom line is: if you fly blind, you’re also flying unarmed **, and it is too easy to crash into an unexpected mountain or be shot down in flames – early and thorough research is vital.


* Horace, Ars Poetica (18 BC), XXI. in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 93-96
** Just cope with the mixed metaphors, OK?



“So When WILL They Decide???”

demandingA consortium proposing a complex development a few years ago had one consortium member under financing pressure – he needed speedy completion.  Stressed, he went to the Minister, and said he needed a decision immediately – so the Minister, not ready to be confident the project was suitable, made the only quick decision he could, and the project was dead.

Another project: a senior manager was instructed by his CEO to go to a Director-General and tell him that if the Department committed to a project before 30 June (just weeks away) they would get a big discount – the CEO, who had never sold to the public sector before, had no idea at all that public sector decision-making is never the same as the private sector, nor that his ask was simply impossible as the decision had to go to Cabinet.  The other message this “incentive” proposal delivered was that the price was inflated and could be reduced – which slowed things down!

Almost every client has at some point vented about the time it takes to get a decision out of Government.

The reasons for delay are often valid, unseen and unappreciated.  Sometimes, of course, delay is just ridiculous.

The first thing to know about public sector delay: Public servants are not spending their own money, they’re spending the public’s money (and resources, time, etc) so decisions have to jump through rigorous hoops* that make sure money is being spent on the right things, for goods and services that meet real needs, in an efficient way, at the right price, and on a supplier who provides product of suitable quality.  The same applies when it’s not a money decision, but a policy decision: are they making the right policy decision on behalf of the public?  They need to be sure they have the facts, all of the facts, and nothing but facts.  The bigger the decision, the more extensive the process of ensuring it’s the right one.  And public sector policy making, particularly for new things, can by involved and complex – see here.

Second: Junior public servants, and even mid-level public servants aren’t authorised to spend much money or make big decisions, but are the subject-matter experts, so the operational or policy people have to ask their seniors to make the decision, by writing a comprehensive briefing note.  The bigger the spend or decision, the more senior the decision maker to be briefed, and the more content and effort in the briefing note.  If the decision is big enough, it will require a Cabinet submission – which takes weeks and months from first draft.  Delay is increased if there is a need to brief intermediate managers, who also have to tick off the proposal as it proceeds up the hierarchy … and any or all of those intermediate managers might ask for amendments to the briefing note or Cabinet submission.

Third: Contention or competition will delay a decision, as multiple alternatives have to be assessed and compared, a consensus sought, objections overcome and a business case developed for a preferred recommendation: that’s much more detailed than just a “yes” or a “no” on a single proposal.  You may be quite unaware of competing proposals; they may include such things as impending new policy, other Departments wanting the money that might be spent on your project, other vendors entering the market, alternative policy or development proposals, and so on.  Often, for larger projects, consultation with other agencies will discover some objection that needs to be accommodated or negotiated away.  And, it is rare for something to go to Cabinet while disagreements remain among Ministers, nor proposals go forward within the public service while major divisions continue.

Fourth: Unenvisaged implications – perhaps a special kind of contention – might also cause delay or blockage.  For example, your proposal or project may require public sector monitoring or staff training, which Departments are reluctant to pay, or may set a precedent they don’t want to be stuck with.

Fifth: Consultation can take time.  When public servants analyse a proposal, they need to know, and/or advise more senior decision-makers, what the impact will be on stakeholders, clients, communities, other agencies, other Governments and so on.  Working that out, and engaging with stakeholders, can take enormous time.

Sixth: Public sector priorities can never be the same as yours – they don’t work for you, aren’t driven by the needs of your business, and are subject to the priorities and obligations imposed by Government and their managers; anything at all can displace consideration of your issue: impending election, by-election, Ministerial scandal, Ministerial reshuffle, Departmental reorganisation, announcement of a new policy, a bigger project, a more politically significant project – and you will probably not have an inkling that many of these kinds of things are on the agenda.

And there are more!

Good decisions are rarely instant decisions, and some delay is always necessary, to ensure money is being wisely spent, that the decision is appropriate, economical, in the best public interest, and will deliver necessary or desirable outcomes; your assertion that’s the case is not sufficient and has to be tested properly.

Read the rest of this entry

The Uber-Rat-King

Rat-King - Naturkundliches Museum Mauritianum Altenburg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rat-King – Naturkundliches Museum Mauritianum Altenburg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

More rarely than you might think, the real decision-maker on your issue might be a politician.

To help ensure their decision is optimal, you must first understand where your issue is up to in the political system; you’ll need to set aside your prejudices about the political system and politicians – so many projects have crashed and burned because they have proceeded on the basis of beliefs about politics rather than reality.

If you thought the bureaucratic status of your issue could look like a Rat-King, just wait until you test the political status: the uber-Rat-King is possible. In the political arena, many things can crash together in ways that are hard to predict.

For example:

  • Politicians and Ministers are not necessarily selected for their skills at absorbing complexity and making decisions – though some turn out to be superb. There’s very little training for them, in how to do their jobs;
  • Some of the simplest issues can unexpectedly carry broad and complex political implications, and this can involve the interests or views of multiple politicians;
  • When’s the next election? By-election? Ministerial reshuffle? Scandal? Corruption inquiry/allegation?
  • Which Government Members of Parliament are impacted? Which Opposition Members of Parliament?
  • Which stakeholders in the Minister’s office are impacted? Which Party donors? (Not that this should be relevant, but some think it is)
  • Do they trust advice from the Department? Are they asking for outside advice?
  • Is this an election promise?

and so on.

If the interaction is hard to predict, then to make it predictable – and thus manageable – you need to uncover those factors making it complex, and try to devise ways to address any implications pushing the decision against you.

That’s research, high-quality research, and after the research, then thoughtful development of tactics and messages.