Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

THE AMAZING PUBLIC-SECTOR EXPERT the Solution to Every Transport Policy Problem

Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

THE AMAZING PUBLIC-SECTOR EXPERT the Solution to Every Transport Policy Problem

Article excerpt

Much public policy discourse has a perpetually depressing tone to it.

An interest group in a particular policy area runs a campaign asserting the centrality of their issue to the well-being of the community and demands more resources to address die alleged crisis. The government then bows to the pressure and delivers some funding. The interest group greets die funding as 'a welcome first step', but quickly explains that 'more needs to be done'. So, we continue on the escalator to ever bigger government.

Thus, it should come as a pleasant surprise to discover a policy area where some key advocates argue that what is required is not the expenditure of more money, but a far wiser use of existing resources.

The policy area in question is public transport in Victoria. A group of Melbourne academics produced a paper in April 2006, Putting The Public Interest Back Into Public Transpon, diät has become something of a bible for local public transport activists. One of its key arguments was that:

Melbourne is receiving poor value for the very substantial sums currently expended ... the correct response is ... to fix the inefficiencies. Until this has occurred, any additional subsidies are likely to be wasted.

Although the paper's claims regarding subsidies and its assessment of the performance of private operators since privatisation are incorrect, it is nonetheless still something of a refreshing change to find a document which argues that the solution to a perceived problem is not die immediate expenditure of more taxpayers' money.

Part of their solution is to re-nationalise the system. Ignoring for the moment die arguments about why that, in itself, is a bad idea, it is intriguing to consider how die academics believe die system should be managed upon its return to the public sector.

They recognise that die performance of the previous government body, the Public Transport Corporation (PTC), was not that flash. They accuse die PTC of having been 'an organisation that presided over decades of decline in patronage and market share' and of having had 'a defensive inward-looking corporate culture'. There is some truth in this accusation, but what it obscures is the fact that the problem was not that the PTC's managers had not known for some time what needed to be done, it was that they had not had political masters with the political will to actually do it.

Everybody knew that Melbourne's restaurant tram did not need a conductor sitting in the back compartment; everybody knew that train cleaners should not be divided between long- and short-handle broom operators; everybody knew that railway workshop employees should not be pottering along making furniture because there was no rail work to be undertaken.

Hence, when the Kennett Government Transport Minister, Alan Brown, quickly made clear that, at last, there was a government determined to undertake reform, not only was PTC management able to come up with a suite of reform proposals, but even the unions began throwing up their own options for the best way to deliver efficiency. The combination of the government's determination and the practical proposals from management produced a four-year reform programme that cut the recurrent subsidy to public transport by $250 million per annum, while also boosting services and beginning to increase patronage levels.

Having rejected previous Victorian public sector models for public transport, the academics base their model in their paper on the public transport authority in Zurich:

The ZW in Zurich only has 35 staff and an equivalent body (in Melbourne) should require no more than this. It will be important to select the best talent in the world for the new agency rather than, for example, simply transferring existing DOI employees to the new agency. Fortunately, there are staff of this calibre available: some are even native Melburnians who have moved to other places because their skills were not valued here. …

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