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Minding our pennies: Battle to ensure taxpayers get best bang for their buck

Opinion

Measuring the State Government’s service delivery standards will be more important than ever now that Treasurer Cameron Dick is cutting budgets, writes Robert MacDonald

Print article

Even Queensland Governor Paul de Jersey has key performance indicators – or service standards, as they’re known in the State Government.

Each year, the Office of the Governor is supposed to make sure at least 80 per cent of its menu items feature Queensland produce as the main element.

Ever since the measure was introduced by the first Palaszczuk Government in 2015-16, de Jersey, who became governor in 2014, and his catering team have comfortably outperformed – always delivering at 90 per cent or above their target.

They hit 100 per cent in 2020-21. Difficulty in sourcing overseas ingredients during the pandemic? Who knows? But good on them.

The Governor also gets measured on how many visits he makes to regional Queensland.

He’s expected to make 45 a year, again a number he’s always beaten even during 2019-20 when he managed to squeeze in 59 visits, many to fire-affected parts of the state before COVID-19 restrictions started in March last year.

Is this the right way to measure the work of a governor?

Possibly not. But it is public money de Jersey and his office are spending and it makes sense to have some sort of benchmark to decide if we’re getting our money’s worth.

It’s the same with every Queensland government agency.

They all have to produce an annual service delivery statement, or SDS, which spells out their role in delivering the government’s services and policies and how they’ll be measured in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.

These SDSs are, therefore, important documents. They give us the benchmarks for measuring government service delivery, shorn of politics.

And they’ll become more important now that the Palaszczuk Government is finally moving into cautious cost-cutting mode after two terms of exuberant public spending.

They will presumably tell us whether the government will be able to maintain its service delivery standards while at the same time tightening budgets – Treasurer Cameron Dick has told departments he needs $3 billion of savings over four years.

That’s the theory. In reality, if you take the trouble to read through all of these SDSs – more than 540 pages worth for 2020-21 – you can’t always tell whether our money is being well-spent or not.

You do learn a lot about how well agencies are performing various tasks as measured by specific targets.

Front-line agencies such as Health and Police have detailed performance measures from emergency room waiting times to homicide clearance rates.

Other agencies calculate the hourly rate for delivering various bits of core business. Trade and Investment Queensland, for instance, calculated that it spent $106.73 an hour coordinating ministerial trade missions last year, compared with a target of $105 an hour.

Many of the performance measurements are customer satisfaction surveys – the “proportion of stakeholders who have a high level of satisfaction with agriculture policy and planning, consultation and engagement processes” for example.

The target for 2019-20 was 70 per cent but there was no survey this year because of COVID-19 so we don’t know how the department actually performed.

Despite that, the target for 2020-21 has been bumped to 75 per cent, so the pressure will be on this year.

It is of course important to know what your customers think of you and to have a very clear understanding of your costs.

But the government’s service delivery statements and the various benchmarks within them suffer the same underlying problems of all schemes designed to measure performance.

Anyone who’s ever been involved in developing key performance indicators knows that what you measure will drive behaviour, for better or worse.

And how do you know what’s a good benchmark in the first place? Is $105 an hour to organise ministerial missions a good figure or not?

KPI veterans will also know the system can be easily gamed, by adjusting definitions perhaps, or including or excluding certain costs in your calculations or by staying sweet with key customers to make sure they give you a good mark in the annual satisfaction survey.

I have no evidence any of this is going on within the Queensland Government but I do know from my days in Austrade many years ago, there was a fine art in meeting your all-important KPIs.

With that said, these service delivery statements are the closest thing we’ve got to a mechanism for keeping the government honest when it comes to delivering its services as effectively and efficiently as possible.

There are two big things to watch for in the SDSs developed during this latest term of the Palaszczuk Government.

The first is how agencies perform against their KPIs, or service standards.

The second is whether the KPIs themselves start changing, to make it easier for a cash-strapped government to meet its targets.

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