Saturday, September 27, 2008

Duffy, Devils, Dali, Details, Convicts, Lawyers and Duffereneralities

Sometimes reading a Michael Duffy column for the Sydney Morning Herald is a wondrous, almost surreal, experience, with impeccable timing and contrarian insight so rare it's as tender as a piece of corn-fed Japanese beef.

This week, for example, at a time when the marketplace is in a state of imminent collapse, when the USA is contemplating pouring more than US$700 million into a failing, flailing marketplace to rescue it from the complete stuff up of the housing market (not to mention many other areas of high greed finance), Duffy clearly decided the time was right to ruminate on public jobs in private hands.

Two events seem to have prompted the Duffy pique - a tangle with Telstra's voice recognition phone answering system, with Duffy consoling himself that in the end he did have a conversation with the computer (and I'm sure the computer was suitably consoling and maternal); and of course it was hard to ignore the M5 East tunnel meltdown, one of a series of meltdowns in privately owned and run road infrastructure in NSW in the past few months.

Duffy seems incapable of understanding that the Telstra voice recognition system is in fact a product of the private sector - come on down ScanSoft and your wonderful Speak Freely technology, you little beauties - and it is just aping dozens of dud systems deployed by and for the private sector in the name of efficiency by the marketplace, albeit at the expense of any sense of service or contact between supplier and consumer (ScanSoft also helped implement solutions for Vodafone, Centrelink and Premier Taxis, but let's not go far into the wondrous world of computers, speech recognition and help desks stationed in India to solve problems in Tasmania).

Never mind. Duffy's baleful experience leads him to what we might call a Dufferenerality, which is to say a generality so mindless and meaningless as to warrant being labelled a truism for its display of truthiness. Namely: "Private operators are often better at building and running things than public servants. This is due not to the individuals involved but to the circumstances in which they work".

Not sure exactly what that means - what are these circumstances of which he speaks? What, like the way the marketplace has worked in real estate in the United States, with abject greed and outrageous abuse of desperate people? Never mind. The turn of phrase shows a blithe spirit, a Cowardian display of defiance, and it also suggests to me that Duffy must have extreme difficulty working as a public servant at the ABC, since there was never a more hopeless, inept and bureaucratic organisation, and by definition Duffy - though he might be a job contractor, just employed for the show - must surely be doing bad work, not because of his individual capacity but because of the circumstances in which he works in that reprehensible morass of socialists and leftists.

But Duffy is heading somewhere with his column logic - it seems that the problem with the tunnel is with the contracting, since a good contract needs to cannily allocate rewards, penalties and risk. And by definition, since the tunnel seems to be a fuck up, the cause is clearly and simply that the contract is a fuck up - because it doesn't give the operators sufficient inducement not to stuff up. 

Duffy then takes us into the realm of the surreal, citing an ex-Greiner expert in contracts (one Gary Sturgess) and his example of a bad public private partnership, the Second Fleet, where the terms of the deal resulted in a number of convicts dying on the voyage. Duffy seems to think that somehow this could all be solved by having a good instead of a bad contract.

Well actually at the time, the English government didn't mind too much how many convicts died, since many of them were being shipped abroad as a way of getting them out of the way for good while avoiding a mass of hangings. People had a different attitude to welfare in those days - witness the purely private sector performance of slave traders, who threw many blacks overboard as they died on voyage, being poorly fed and crammed into holds for the journey. The slave traders didn't rabbit on about contracts like a poorly paid ABC public servant - they simply calculated how many bodies they needed alive to sell on landing, and acted accordingly.

What's more, they didn't imagine their actions would be used as a metaphor for someone two hundred and fifty years later arguing that either (a) the private sector was totally immoral and greedy or (b) the private sector was completely inefficient and inept. Nor did they see the need to employ a dozen more lawyers to generate a really good contract, as if lawyers and contracts were ever the solution to anything, especially if you have to resort to the courts to enforce your really good contract. No, as wiser minds than mine have said, first things first, let's kill all the lawyers, or at least throw them in a slave hold and ship them to Africa to improve humanity's lot.

Okay, never mind, let's just say that Duffy isn't that good at history, or remembering how things once worked - since at the time of the Second Fleet, the art of staying alive for long periods was still in its early stages, and staying alive on long voyages on the kind of food which could be stored for long periods in a non-refrigerated environment was also in early days. And the idea of giving up a good rum for the officers so a couple of convicts might live is really the kind of thinking which has led us to the ABC. (You know Duffers where the team at head office head out for a slap bang lunch while the guys putting the show together don't even have folders to file their memos).

But wait, there's hope. There's a luff in the mainsails, and a turning of the wind, for Duffy is now ready to argue that if the contract is right - God and lawyers willing - then there are immense benefits to all in public private partnerships (yea, so all that talk of Macquarie going hoof up is only idle speculation). Why studies have shown they avoid cost over-runs and are hugely more transparent than traditional projects - even if that transparency only reveals how deep the stuff up is.

So once the contract is right, and a quadrillion of lawyers have generated an immensity of clauses, what else could be the problem? Well it turns out that it's usage - people actually like the road and use it, and that's all the fault of the government cash back scheme, which rewards people for using the road by giving them a rebate on the toll.

Ah, we're in the wonderful private sector world of Fawlty Towers, where a hotel would run really well if it didn't have any guests, and by definition, any public servant would be a master of his or her domain if only it weren't for the public expecting things. Pesky public. Yep, it's not the fault of the government, or the private owners, or even, it seems, lawyers or convicts, it's actually the fault of the Joe Blows, the Joe Public, the Joe six packs, the mug punters, who actually expected to be able to use the M5 once it was built. And worse, went and used it.

No, these sheep have strayed in their expectations. Sure they've lined up to be clipped, but they get some cash back as a reward for standing patiently in line. So what to do, muses the Duffy. Well, because of the overcrowding, the M5 is slow even on a normal day, he muses, much worse than the M4 or the north west orbital. It only offers a 40% travel time compared to alternative routes, and motorists travel at a mere 45 km an hour when it's their god given right to hoon around the tracks at peak time at a 110 km or more.

So it's off with their heads, says the Duffy. The Government should forthwith cancel the cashback scheme, so that the sheep understand that traveling in Sydney on a private public partnership is pain, pure fiscal pain. Once they've stopped using it, it'll work really well.

Never mind what the government promised, never mind how that allows the private owners to keep shoveling money into their pockets without regard for maintenance or efficient operation or actually doing any of the things Duffy started his column talking about. No, let's not focus on a rewards based, profit driven incentive to do well.

No, in the land of topsy turvy, it's easy to throw everything upside down. It can all be solved by allowing the contractor to do nothing to fix operational issues, just punish the actual users. Why it sounds exactly like how they've been running mortgages in the United States.

And if canceling the cashback scheme doesn't work by reducing traffic, Duffy has an even better solution. Build another M5 tunnel, and this time use a better contract.

You can almost imagine Duffy chortling over the keyboard as he wrote this capper - what a line, what a rounding out of the argument. An innocent bystander however is left with a feeling of have landed in cloud cuckoo land - more and bigger tunnels, more and more lawyers, this is Duffy's solution to the simple user experience of getting on the phone to Telstra or going for a drive on a motorway?

No wonder New South Wales is so comprehensively stuffed. First there's the government, and then there's its columnists, who, knowing very little of history, recommend that we keep on repeating it and repeating it, all so we don't fall into the dangerous path of having the government resume control of the tunnel and thereby jeopardise the pure market driven ideology of the chosen few. (Not that the government sounded all that serious about taking the tunnel over, it was just rattling sabers so that Joe Public knew it was on the case, was threatening to do something, for fear that Joe Public at the next election might want to replicate the results in the recent council elections).

Well at a time when socialising the losses is a way of life for some Republicans, and blaming and punishing the convicts for wanting to drive on a road that is supposed to work by attracting and rewarding its customers is the theme of an SMH column, it won't be long before the ghost of Salvador Dale turns up to explain how dripping clocks keep the best time.

Duffy finally stands revealed as a man with a very ABC, public servant mentality. If people are wanting to use a road, wanting to pay 'the man' his money, and they can't turn a profit out of that, it's got bugger all to do with the contract, and bugger all to with customers. It does however have a lot to do with the government and the private operator, and by now surely we can say it's about time the customers got better ones. While they're at it, they might think about getting better columnists too, ones who don't imagine a cute punch line means something other than cuteness.

So to this week's scorecard:

Actual solutions to M5 maintenance and operational issues: 0
Modest love of lawyers and the way they bring peace and harmony to the world: 11
Willingness to cite experts and studies in the cause of spurious arguments: 11
Willingness to sting mug punters by cutting the cashback scheme: 11
Belief that more tunnels will sort the world and Sydney traffic: 11
Actual understanding of Sydney traffic problems and solutions: 0
Heroic capacity to ignore marketplace fluctuations of an American kind to concentrate on a minor computer malfunction which caused a brief glitch on Sydney roads: 11
Ability to build surreal gossamer castles from a beach load of Dali sand: 11

Gee, an extremely high scoring column. That makes the title for this week's column all the more disappointing: "The devil is in the contract's details for public jobs in private hands." It's utterly prosaic and mundane. Sure it's accurate enough in relation to Duffy's intent, but it's dull and lacks the wonderful ambiguity of headers we've seen in the past. Has Duffy struck back at the subbies? Well next week, if the Herald hasn't decided to reduce Duffy's paycheck by half, and if this doesn't reduce his verbiage by half, then it should take up this blog's recommendation to build more columnists. With better headers. And make sure they've got a lawyer, a real good one. (Make sense? Since when did sense matter?)

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