Saturday, December 08, 2007

Getting Policy Objectives Right

Peter Hartcher in the SMH has given the new Prime Minister suggestions on five key policy areas in which he needs to make progress.

I won't address them all here, but what I want to show is how shallow this kind of thinking and writing is. His first goal is for the new Government to show it is serious about fighting inflation and calls for the Government to run a higher surplus than the 1% commited to by Howard and Rudd in the election. He chooses 2% - not I think based on any science other than it is bigger than 1. This begs the question of what the Government is supposed to do with this surplus - they have no debt to pay off, they have almost already fully provisioned for the public service super and we have higher education and health endowment funds.

Perhaps Hartcher needs to ask whether there are other ways to divert cash into savings rather than expenditure. A really good way would be to get back to work on lifting average employees super contributions to 15% of income - not just politicians (in the post Latham rules) and public servants. One way is to divert some tax cuts into employees super funds. So we can still tax but not spend but make the saving in the name of the taxpayers not the amorphous Government.

Hartcher's second policy area is education, where he generally joins the crowd who want to beat up on teachers and education unions. His first call is to adopt national standard curricula. Memo to all commentators: this is a good policy almost everywhere other than NSW where we still have a fairly substantive curricula. Uniformity in itself isn't always necessarily good. He then turns his attention to literacy and numeracy standards asking the States to insist that the results of the national standards tests be released school by school when conducted. This is such poor policy, because it makes the assumption that the school is the only factor determining the result and ignores other socio-economic factors. I'm all for reliable data, but what we need is data on the school "value added". That is, for each school how good is the phalanx of Year 6 results against the results that the same students (wherever they were then) scored in Year 3 (or whatever prior comparison years are available). That is the measure of the school.

As for demanding "explicit mechanisms for improving levels of numeracy and literacy" I don't know of any State education system that doesn't have that as a goal and indeed have matching strategies. Does Hartcher really imagine it is otherwise?

On the third policy area - health - Hartcher really squibs it by saying "All you have to do this year is set the detailed performance targets for the states to meet" While that is simply repeating what the ALP said in the campaign, anyone will tell you that the problem in health policy is actually knowing what good looks like. For example, if hospitals have success in improving recovery times and reducing hospital stays (usually with the application of expensive high-tech capital equipment) they get criticised for reducing the number of bed-days in the hospital.

Public policy planning I think is a little beyond the capability of Peter Hartcher.

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