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Best-practice obfuscation

Consider this beautiful phrase: ''Percentage of clients fitted with a hearing aid who have hearing loss greater than 23 decibels.'' It's one of the key performance indicators that the federal Health Department uses to gauge the success of its hearing services. It's also the only one of 26 KPIs examined recently by the Auditor-General, across several agencies, that met the criteria for what a KPI should be: focused, understandable, measurable and free from bias.

This small audit of the manner in which agencies report on themselves is a reminder of just how little progress has been made in the five years since then finance minister Lindsay Tanner unveiled Operation Sunlight. The budget papers, as we will discover next week, remain riddled with junk KPIs that are rarely expressed in plain English, let alone measurable and thus meaningful. Here's an example we stumbled on while flicking through the Defence Department's last annual report. Defence's intelligence and security group gave itself the highest rating (a triple tick) for each of its six KPIs, including this pearler: ''Achieve best practice in governance and compliance.'' Measurable? Free from bias? Who knows. We'd also argue its too ambiguous to be focused or understandable. Best-practice governance indeed. Perhaps the triple tick is a subtle, ironic joke.

Stephen Bartos explains why it's crucial we fix this problem in this month's Public Sector Informant.

The progressive choice

Labor and the Coalition stoushed last month over whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard had the right to name Governor-General Quentin Bryce's replacement before the September election (Bryce's term ends in March 2014). With that in mind, former NSW Labor lefty Meredith Burgmann dug out for us this memorable Canberra Times editorial published on February 6, 1965. It reads:

Within a few weeks at most, a new Governor-General will have to be appointed to succeed Lord de L'Isle, who is leaving in March. It may very well be that he has been chosen already. What is certain is that if Sir Robert Menzies has his way, he will be an Englishman, and if the Australian people had their way, he would be an Australian. Since Sir Robert is Prime Minister and the Australian people do not care all that much anyway, the chances are that he will be an Englishman.

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"On the slight chance that the decision has not already been taken, we would like to suggest a compromise. The imaginative thing to do would be to choose neither an Englishman nor an Australian but a citizen of another Commonwealth country. The most imaginative thing of all would be to invite Mrs Pandit Nehru, the sister of the late Indian prime minister, and a woman of outstanding personality. As a woman and an Indian, her appointment would infuriate all the reactionary forces in Australia - until she actually arrived, when she would immediately charm them. Two of the sacred donkeys of Australian political life would be killed at once, and the rest of the world would look at us with new interest and respect.''

Menzies chose an Australian after all: one of his former ministers, Lord Richard Casey. It took another 43 years for a woman to hold the office. The Canberra Times, clearly, was well before its times.

Send your confidential tips to psi.editor@canberratimes.com.au