With floods devastating Queensland and New South Wales, and government responses criticised as ill-timed and inadequate, it's time to scrutinise the deeper issues behind the repeated failure of our nation's critical service systems in planning for, responding to and navigating beyond crises.
The floods have been likened to the bushfires of 2019-2020, but a similar thread runs through the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the response to the Omicron variant, the aged care system, and other service systems.
Blame, and the subsequent loss of faith in government, often falls on elected leaders. But these failures are symptoms of an obsolete ideal that has guided public policy for the past 40 years. This idea has got us to where we are today, and it has been clear for some time that we're travelling down a road we should no longer be on.
The notion that government should be small, take its hands off the wheel, create and administer lightly regulated markets for the private sector, restricting its role to the direction of funds, has demonstratively failed.
This came into sharp focus in the pandemic. Where we discarded this idea - in the early response where the public service, elected leaders and business worked in active partnership - Australia responded admirably. Where it was maintained - such as in the vaccine rollout and Omicron response - supply chains failed, service systems crumbled, and citizens felt betrayed and abandoned. Tragically, these failings were, and still are, being felt by some of our society's most vulnerable.
Other examples of systemic weakness aren't hard to find. Our aged care sector's existing crisis was accelerated by the pandemic. The 2011 decision to outsource much of this system to the private sector, created a multi-billion dollar industry. When the pandemic hit, the elderly paid the price, often with their lives, for the faults in this approach - insufficient staff, poor training, and COVID mitigation mismanagement.
Core services such as employment services and childcare have suffered. Even before COVID, employment services were fragmented and difficult to navigate, the result of years of hands-off service delivery. With tens of thousands of Australians out of work at the height of the pandemic, we witnessed a bureaucracy that could have benefited from a more active participation in the service system.
Deficiencies in the early childhood sector are also impossible to ignore. A lack of access to affordable quality services, often determined by location and income are highlighted in the Mitchell Institute's recent Deserts and Oases report, and a low paid workforce struggled to cope.
We must reverse the hollowing-out of the public service and the ideal behind it. The outsourcing of core work once reserved for the bureaucracy is preserving the status quo of a public service devoid of capacity, capability, and long-term ambition.
Rebuilding public sector capability can be popular. Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Development since 2017 has indicated that people want government to take a more active role in relation to service delivery. In February 2022, out of 1069 respondents, 58 per cent indicated that they considered it very important that government deliver social services directly, rather than outsourcing to third parties. This was up from 53 per cent in 2021 and 57 per cent in 2020.
This doesn't mean that we have to hand back all service delivery to the public sector. Rather, by encouraging a more active partnership between the public and private sectors, and between different parts and levels of government, we can ensure a greater level of accountability and oversight that is currently lacking. Importantly, we also need to enable and empower the public sector to carry this out.
The biggest challenge facing whichever party governs after the next election is to ensure that our public service is fit for purpose. While we're a reasonable way down the wrong road, there's still time to turn things around. This is something that will benefit all Australians.
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