How I learned to view “Independent” reports

a mozaic

Collection of differences

When I was an Economics Honours student, our small class was visited by John Stone, who later became Secretary to the Treasury. He was on a Treasury recruitment mission.  Early in his talk he referred to the Karmel Report on Education and how poor it was.  Prof Karmel had been our Head of Department so I felt honour bound to take up the challenge: “Professor Karmel is a highly regarded economist, so how come this report is as bad as you say it is?”

Consider the Committee!

He did not go on the defensive, instead he gave us a pen picture of each member of the Committee that had produced the report.  I remember one fellow being described as ‘a businessman who believes that there should be ten people lined up outside his factory gate for every vacancy he has available’.

As a student I had naively looked at reports as objective statements of fact, carefully argued. But after that visit, I saw that all reports are in fact a compromise of the various views of the members comprising the Committee. Before the visit I had thought that an ‘independent’ report meant it was independent of the government, but then who chooses the committee?

Unless we know who is on the Committee and the way they see the world, it is hard to appreciate the conclusions reached.   Often the titular head of the committee, the one whose name is associated with the report – as Prof Karmel was  in this case – is chosen for his reputation, but the committee is chosen for their views (and there are more of them!)

3 Thoughts on “How I learned to view “Independent” reports

  1. My learning experience regarding “independent reports” took a lot longer to unfold: the 2006 “independent inquiry into the financial sustainability of NSW local government” – the (Percy) Allen report – was treated as gospel in the industry for almost a decade. It proclaimed an “infrastructure crisis”: the current $6.3B renewal backlog would grow to $21B within 15 years unless state and federal govt’s “come to the rescue” with more funding. I had no reason to doubt it (it was “independent”!).

    In 2015, with the threat of amalgamations looming, NSW councils revised their backlog figures (previously calculated based on the methodology prescribed by NSW Govt) down so they could show they were ‘fit for the future’… the backlog peaked at $7.2B in 2012 (less than $1B more than Allen’s 2006 figure despite the fact that state and feds hadn’t “come to the rescue” much) and is now closer to $3.7B.

    When I read it now, the emotive language is perhaps an indicator of (as per the point in the post) “the way they saw the world”: local govt. is unsustainable and needs significant extra funding from other levels of govt. (and removal of the rate cap). Now, with all but a handful of councils assessed as fit for the future in terms of finances, we need a new way of looking at our world (something the industry is, I think, still getting their head around).

  2. Patrick Whelan on March 22, 2017 at 4:38 pm said:

    There’s an old saying in politics: “Never hold an enquiry if you don’t know the answer.” Obviously the way to make sure you get the answer you want is to stack the committee with people you know will give you the answer you want.

    In WA, the Keelty report into the Yarloop fire was independent, bu4 it was well known that a major recommendation would be a WA Rural Fire Service. We’re still waiting, largely because of the State’s financial position. The governsment wanted the idea of a rural fire service raised, but couldn’t do it itself because of the cost. Good independent report,

    • Penny on March 22, 2017 at 4:57 pm said:

      I thought this came from “Yes Minister”! 🙂
      But that aside, what makes the Keelty report a ‘good independent report’? What makes any report, independent or otherwise, a good report? Is it a report that agrees with your position? And, if not, what qualities does it need to possess?

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