Big friendly generals

If you hire a house builder but know nothing about building, best make sure there’s a building inspector on your side. Else, you might have got a good price because the builder intends to skimp on the foundations, skimp on the insulation and the waterproofing, skimp on the concrete in the driveway. Or on any of dozens of other structural elements.

There’s an obvious lesson here for taxpayers.

Taxpayers entrust the expensive foundations of our economy and society to an army of public servants and their political masters, all making decisions and doing stuff we know little about. Which of us can teach a child, and catch a thief, and predict a recession, and regulate a bank, and drive a submarine, and save a species, and put out a bushfire, and − you get the idea? Taxpayers need some inspectors on their side, reporting directly to them.

A federal anti-corruption commissioner, long delayed, is one of the inspectors we need. But only one; much can be substandard but not corrupt. For the rest we need a team of Inspector-Generals (IG), proxies for the common good in the delivery of programs that are variously complex, expensive, critical or sensitive, for which the public needs various degrees of assurance.

IGs are experts in their area of responsibility, capable of prosecuting the public interest beyond the point where the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman leave off. IGs analyse systems and decisions more closely than the Auditor-General. IGs inquire, not only whether correct procedure has been followed, as the Ombudsman does, but whether substantive decisions would satisfy a diligent expert. Their reviews and evaluations intrude to the point of prompting and driving improvements in systems and decision-making.

IGs conduct investigations in response to public complaints, invite public submissions and report publicly. They also investigate at the request of ministers and parliament and may answer to a parliamentary committee. IGs thus bridge the void between policy makers and the public. But remain independent of both, with the discretion to collect their own intelligence, develop their own sense of systematic failings, investigate as they see fit. Such public-facing and public-serving arrangements invite public confidence. We need more of that.

For example, suppose that, for many decades prior to the pandemic, we’d had an IG of Crisis Management and had got used to having this person around. When the pandemic hit, officials fully accepted that this IG would report the administrative response, intent on keeping the public informed and learning lessons for the next time. Officials knew that the IG would document the inevitable uncertainties, warn us that time and chance have unpleasant surprises in store, and so guard against the false wisdom of hindsight. Officials accepted the principle that, whatever power we grant to them as pandemic managers, that power never extends to reporting their own performance or hiding information that the public needs to judge their performance. Given that productive history of crisis management and the routine of transparency, administrators would have learned that lucky choices cannot be spun as superior judgement, attributing only unlucky choices to bad luck or poor advice. They would have learned to spread the risk by sharing information and including knowledgeable others in canvassing the options and selecting best responses. When the inevitable mistakes were made, despite good process and best efforts, a well-informed and understanding public kept its cool.

Suppose that, also for many decades past, we’d had an IG of Discretionary Budgets and had got used to having this person around. Discretionary budgets are chunks of money that governments appropriate without telling the public how the money will be spent. Of course, the government cannot always know how budgets will be spent, but the line items are often blank because the government does not want the public to know, ever. This IG stopped all that that long ago, ending our planned ignorance. Administrators learned that this IG documents actual spending in close to real time, intent on keeping the public informed. Administrators adapted to the reality that the public will be told about the consultancies, how tens and hundreds of millions in grants are distributed, the winning of lucrative contracts, the cost blow-outs, the public services quietly starved of staff and funds. Long ago, MPs learned to devote more time to their real job, which is to monitor government spending, less time angling for consultancies, grants and lucrative contracts. Long ago, these poachers turned gamekeeper. Amazingly, it’s been so long that only the old folk remember that last big scandal over the misuse of public funds, the tedious battle for a Royal Commission, its ugly proceedings.

How about an IG of the Household Economy? This IG would oversee the many agencies with some role in protecting households as we consume and donate, save and invest, own and rent, work and study, commute and travel, exercise and socialise. These protections exist but are widely dispersed – the new IG will need a few weeks just to make a list. Some set the prices of our essential services, put a floor under wages and employment conditions, protect us from unfair dismissal, restrain the enthusiasm of debt-collectors. Some follow up on unpaid wages, lost superannuation and fraudulent charges. Some tell us what work we can do and which we cannot. Some set standards for the goods and services that we buy – our food and water, therapeutic goods, appliance safety, energy and water efficiency, the fuel efficiency and safety of vehicles, safe and sustainable dwellings. Some regulate product and service disclosures – food and appliance labelling, advertising, debt contracts and financial management fees. Some license our financial advisers, superannuation managers, accountants and insurers. Some license a raft of health professionals, teachers and child-care workers. Some investigate our complaints, else tell us where to go.

The mere enumeration of the relevant agencies and activities suggests that an IG of the Household Economy needs to be looking over their shoulders on our behalf; reviewing, evaluating and driving change at a level of detail that no household can match. Don’t doubt that there are battles to be fought and won on our behalf, since many programs are industry-based and thus exposed to lobbying and capture by vested interests.

But don’t expect IGs to always tell us, the public, what we want to hear. They will not pander to us as politicians do, instead call out our delusions, unreasonable fears, simplistic solutions and self-serving proposals. They will fight that other kind of corruption, the thoroughly democratic corruption of unchallenged ignorance and political pandering that sets us all to picking each other’s pockets and wasting each other’s tax dollars. We may come round to seeing each IG as a demanding coach whose honest feedback and expert advice gets an athlete onto the winner’s podium.

How many of these new IGs do we need? Probably not many, to avoid diluting their investigative capacities and losing a strong sense of priorities. Unlike the existing IGs, most of which oversee a single activity in a single agency, the new IGs would oversee sets of related issues across multiple agencies – groupings that encompass the household economy, or the small business economy, or physical violence, bad jobs and insecure housing, community and social capital, regional and remote economies. The few new slots for honest inspections may be hotly contested.



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