November 13, 2013 | Graham

Effective versus efficient

The Conversation is supposed to be a vehicle for university academics, but it seems to be becoming a repository for the work of anyone even tenuously connected with a university. Which means that advocacy organisations can insinuate their propaganda onto its pages, as long as one of their researchers is studying at a university.

Such seems to be the case with How efficient is Australia’s public sector? Short answer: very. The, piece funded by vested interests like the CPSU and Slater and Gordon claims that it’s very difficult to get more out of the Australian public service because it is about as efficient as it can be, and certainly as efficient as large private organisations.

The article, written by Christopher Stone, Research Director at the very left-wing Centre for Policy Development, and a PhD student in law at Macquarie University, relies heavily on verbal subterfuge to “prove” its point.

Exhibit A is a World Bank survey which places Australia as the ninth most “effective” government in the world. It then combines this ranking, with our tax expenditure as a percentage of GDP to “show” that dollar for dollar we are one of the most effective governments in the world.

He then claims:

Getting big results compared to the resources used (good “bang for your buck”) is an important aspect of efficiency, so these nations at the top right are the most efficient on this measure.

But what exactly does “effective” mean. According to the World Bank it is a measure based on a survey which:

Reflects perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies.

Combining this measure with percentage of economy spent on government services tells you nothing about efficiency. A government which chose to spend all of its GDP could rank exactly the same as one that spent virtually none of its GDP, because this measure only ranks what you supply with no reference to how much.

Governments can only be compared for efficiency against the things that they deliver which are comparable. So, for example, we could work out the efficiency of the education system between countries on the basis of the number of dollars spent, the number of people employed, the assets invested and the outcomes achieved.

But if one government provides education right through from pre-school to university, and another only provides primary, they could both be seen as equally effective, because that is limited only to what they supply, but it would be impossible to work out their efficiency by comparing their systems, because they are apples and oranges.

We can expect more such nonsense as the Abbott government seeks to meet Australians’ expectations of both government services and taxation levels, which are pulling in opposite directions. Public servants will try to avoid working any harder, and have a vested interest in proving that this is as good as it gets.

But should the university sector be involved in helping them propagate the propaganda, particularly from an activist whose only qualification to be writing such a piece appears to be study towards a PhD in a discipline unrelated to the field of the article?

Posted by Graham at 10:53 am | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. At last, someone who understands human nature and the way data or statistics may be manipulated to draw a conclusion which accords with one’s own interests or emotionally based views!!
    I learnt the message early in a legal career when a plaintiff has a doctor say that his petit mal epilepsy was caused by blunt force trauma in an accident. We were able to get a doctor to testify that petit mal epilepsy could not be caused by blunt force trauma.

    I recently read a book on the history of coffee. It mentioned a university study which stated that tea was rich in anti oxidants. 6 Months later another university study published a finding that coffee had twice as many anti oxidants as tea. The author investigated and found– you guessed it- the first study was funded by some international tea marketing organisation and the second by an international coffee marketing organisation.

    No wonder I am a climate sceptic.

    Comment by George Gell — November 14, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  2. We all know that the upper echelon of the PS is Lazy & Biases, that’s a given. It takes 6 to 12 months to get a decision on the colour of the serviettes they should use. The front bench staff are great, mostly.

    I like your findings on the History of Coffee. Well here’s another. on Bias.

    White Sugar, “the poison.” In the 70’s a study done in Europe forum by the Beet Sugar Industry that “White Cane Sugar” was no good for you. Cane Sugar had increased it’s World Market Share from 24% to 27% & was therefore encroaching on the BSI traditional Market.
    The BSI said that all the goodness had been bleached out of Cane Sugar & people started shunning White sugar.

    The Sugar Cane Industry, rather than criticize the findings, admitted it. Domestic White Sugar was 20c a Kilo & Brown (raw) Sugar was 10c a Kilo at the time. As Brown Sugar had all the goodness still in it, it must be good for you. Consequently the price of Brown Sugar jumped to 20c a Kilo.

    Schrimple, isn’t it. One must always be aware of some of the strange findings done by funded studies in Universities.

    Comment by John Barr — November 14, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  3. The public service is, I believe, clearly full of self serving empire builders, and incorporates huge duplication, without which we could provide around a 30% savings, all of which would be better spent at the coal face providing actual services.
    And more regional autonomy, along with volunteering regional boards, would further reduce costs.
    And, allow such funding as available, to be largely distributed, on a pro rata formula, moderated only by proven unmet need!
    I think university publications ought remain firmly locked into research and the sharing of knowledge, and or, unproven intellectual concepts or, what ifs.
    That said, I do believe in freedom speech and the right of patently partisan editors to publish and be dammed.
    In which case, other publicists, would retain a equal right to refute any and all claims or assertions!
    Q: How many public servants do you need to change a light bulb?
    A: 101! One to hold the light bulb steady, while the other hundred lift turn the house around. Boom boom.
    Seriously, the attempt at humor highlights, that the public service is anything but efficient?
    This may be due in part to the sheer lack of experience of various ministers, and or their lack of relevant expertise.
    In which case, much of the work of public servants, is simply trying to rectify, the (Learner wheels) problems created by incompetent Ministers, or ideologues, (same diff) whose major flaw is an inability to change their minds?
    Even when all the available credible evidence is saying, that’s exactly what they should be doing, and in too many cases, with urgent alacrity!
    Alan B. Goulding.

    Comment by Alan Goulding — November 15, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

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