Message to Kevin, Wayne and Lindsay: Sweat the small stuff

Yesterday’s op ed in the Fin is a first for me. It’s the first time in scores of op eds I’ve written, that a paper has picked up my proposed headline.

Below the fold is the piece as originally written before it was chopped back from 700 to 500 words. It’s a direct development of a theme I began in comments on an earlier op ed – objecting to DD who was running the usual line that the big savings are mostly in the areas that can be identified by the big fish. I disagree.

Waynes Swans first media release as Treasurer was a boilerplate exercise. Or was it? It left me hoping that it was hinting towards something more promising.

Today I call on families, individuals, business and community groups to submit their ideas for the Governments first Budget, as we go about meeting the big economic challenges Australia faces.

Let me tell you a story. In 1993 when I worked in Treasurer John Dawkins office a letter arrived. The author was a Brisbane solicitor and he drew Dawkins’ attention to weaknesses in the Tax Act which were permitting liquidated companies to advantage their creditors ahead of the Tax Office.

In the spirit of a random audit, I took a copy before passing the correspondence on to Treasury. Nine months later I rang the solicitor and asked how our reply measured up to his expectations.

His response? What reply?. Opposition Leader John Hewson and National Party Leader Tim Fischer had replied thanking him for the letter and assuring him theyd look into the matter on assuming Government which it turned out took one more parliamentary term than they were expecting.

No-one in government neither the Treasury, the Tax Office or the Treasurer had managed a response.

In one sense this is unusual. Departments have systems to prevent such snafus. But we all know how anodyne their responses usually are. “The Treasurer has asked me to thank you for bringing your views to his attention . . . yada yada.”

Large organisations were always a bit like this. But in the 1970s something genuinely new emerged. Firms like Toyota built their processes around the assiduous cultivation of and responsiveness to feedback from employees, suppliers and customers.

Moving beyond the old suggestion boxes, Toyota paid workers to regularly meet in quality circles to endlessly strategise to improve productivity. Suppliers were cultivated for their contribution to long term design rather than just short term price. And a deep interest was taken in winning customer loyalty by meeting their needs.

Economists have paid too little attention to this remarkable new phenomenon.

But I entertain a fond hope that the new government might see how much it can help them with their current and future labours. As our commodity prices went through the roof swelling the profits of our miners, the Government that has just passed into history found an extra few billion dollars each time it looked at the kitty.

Life doesnt look like being so easy for the new Government.

Right now ministers will be meeting with senior bureaucrats who have long lists of surplus building measures that the outgoing government had ruled off limits. I hope its bold in its response to all this, because it will regret any faintness of heart now at its leisure.

But if it can begin a process by which proposals begin bubbling up from the bottom as well as coming down from the top, if it can sweat the small stuff as well as the big, it will be building an asset of incalculable value for its own longevity. For the dividends will grow over the years, just as they did for Toyota.

Getting a culture that can deliver that within the public service will be far from easy.

But one way to start would be to hold a competition between the central economic agencies The Departments of Finance, Treasury, PM&C, the Productivity Commission and the Tax Office or perhaps between self selected units within them for the best list of proposals.

I’d invite accounting and consulting firms to participate. As experience gathered I’d encourage entries from all comers out there in the community and at some stage offer prizes for the best suggestions.

Public participation would of course draw forth a rich harvest of cranks, simpletons and the chronically naive. So sifting the proposals would be a task in itself and thered be a lot of those thanks for your views letters to send.

Somehow I cant see the public objecting to a government really trying to listen. And I guess Toyota has to discard a lot of dross in customer feedback it gets.

Thats what you do when youre panning for gold.

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16 years ago

I saw that one. I thought it was pretty good.

The missing part of it is to get a culture of reactivity and agility in government. I think that this could be a strong small step towards that, but I wonder how hard it would be to actually get this stuff moving quickly enough through the policy and political analysis chain.

Perhaps if enough of it is genuinely small it could just happen without anyone really noticing!

murph the surf
murph the surf
16 years ago

“Public participation would of course draw forth a rich harvest of cranks, simpletons and the chronically naive.”
Just start up a blog with the appropriate title perhaps ?
Then the other readers can do the filtering for the government department interested. Sounds just like a blog really.

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
16 years ago


I may be missing something here, but where’s the incentive for the public service to change their behavior?

Don’t forget, they are essentially a monopoly provider and therefore don’t have to fight for market share the way that Toyota did.

16 years ago

3) Further, this sets up competition between public servants – and others. So the best ideas have a chance of surfacing. You only need a few to come good and a mechanism that (roughly) sifts out the better proposals and youre away.

4) The workers in Toyota werent fighting for market share. They were trying to do a good job, trying to contribute constructively to the workforce according to the way their job was designed – a subject in which they were intimately involved.

Both of these assume a competitive environment with incentivising rewards…

16 years ago

NG, I am not entirely sure, but for present purposes that appears fair enough. The slur on monkeys is, as you doubtlessly realise, false and inapposite.

However, it is actually in line with my point which was not intended to be about money, but any incentivising rewards. At the ‘small’ end of the scale that you and Toyota were talking about, the relevant rewards are being appreciated, congratulated and approved of for taking such initiatives.

I am sure that the public service can achieve that kind of a culture. I wonder only how hard and long a task it might be. Worst, I see such a culture as requiring an ability to both advance and fire people for operational reasons more easily than is the case (in practice) in the public service.

You will respond: ‘Look Toyota’ but they got around it by essentially not having anyone who wasn’t pretty motivated and dedicated on the team at all, which for cultural reasons was possible there and then and is not now and here.


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