Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The case for bite-sized chunks

I wonder if it's time for the Productivity Commission to be given more bite-sized chunks of policy that it can comfortably get its jaws around.

What got me thinking about this was the Commission's services inquiry. This was an enormously broad topic, even allowing for the fact that some large service sectors, government-provided health and education services, were outside the terms of reference. I think the Commission did as good a job as anyone could do faced with a beast of that size, though clearly there was an inherent problem is trying to move from such a broad brush topic to specific recommendations.

At one point the Commission came up with a short list of some possible individual topics that had emerged as possibly fruitful lines of enquiry, and asked for votes to whittle it down. But that, while a nice thing to do from the point of view of getting citizen input, rather proves the point: they could easily have come up with several more short lists, all comprised of equally good candidates. And what they did cover was fine, and well handled. But the services sector topic was Just. Too. Big.

So where do the topics come from?  According to this explanation from Treasury, who manage the topic-selection process,
Potential inquiry topics will be selected based on the degree to which they:
  • have the potential to improve productivity and support the overall well-being of New Zealanders;
  • utilise the Commission’s unique position as an independent agency with high quality analytical ability and a focus on public engagement; and
  • require a substantial degree of analysis to resolve a complex set of issues
All well and good, and you'd have to say that all the bullet points combine to rule out putting the high-expertise Commission onto piffling topics of no great substance. But I think the balance has been struck too much down the big picture end.

Some of it is an age and stage thing: the Commission needed, for example, to look at the overall macro state of productivity in New Zealand early on in the piece before moving on to tackling (say) sectoral issues. But I reckon we could now do with more of the tighter focus topics, like the earlier housing affordability and international freight services ones.

I had a quick look at the Australian Productivity Commission's recent topics. Within a wider project called 'Relative Costs of Doing Business in Australia', they're working their way through some individual industries (currently retailing, and the dairy manufacturing industry), they'd earlier knocked off car manufacturing, and they've had some individual topics (labour mobility, public infrastructure) which, while weighty enough, weren't as wide ranging in scope as our first services inquiry or the latest one on public services.

The Aussies don't get everything right - their Treasurer and his ministerial sidekick, for example, issued a brazen, squalidly political press release after the Aussie Commission's infrastructure report - but maybe we could learn something from them about the manageability of the productivity agenda.

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