Infrastructure and the limits to Government as ‘Big Business’
When Nick Greiner, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, became the Premier of New South Wales he declared that Government was ‘Big Business’. It was said that he required a signed commitment from each of his Ministers about the way they were to manage their portfolios and that to properly manage the assets of those portfolios was one of his requirements. I never saw one of these contracts so I cannot vouch for their existence but I do know that it was the Ministerial offices who were first in line for copies of New South Wales’ Total Asset Management Manual. At the time I thought that this ‘big business’ approach was breath of fresh air, particularly as it led Nick Greiner to override the advice of his head of Treasury and to be the first state adopter of accrual accounting. He wanted to be able to compare the performances of his state authorities with large private companies. They used accrual accounting so he figured that the government should as well. This was a good move for better management of public assets so I applauded it. But there are limits to the application of business principles to the work of government, as Greiner himself found out some years later when he was charged with corruption. It wasn’t corruption. What he did would have been considered good management practice if it had been done within a business context. But it wasn’t. (See: ‘An Act of Corruption?’by Michael Gleeson and published by the Sydney Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1992)
Business looks after its customers in order to make a profit. That is its job. It is not the job of business to care for the environment or for the social fabric of the community or for the damages it causes to others by its actions. It is not the job of business to act on behalf of the citizenry. That is the job of the government. So if government is doing business’ job – who is doing the government’s job? More specifically, who is ensuring that infrastructure is designed for the benefit of the community as a whole? Who can? Unless we know the ‘who’, the ‘what’, is a moot question.