Productivity commission findings on education - just the tip of the iceberg?

Dr Raymond Young UNSW Canberra

‘Lifting the bonnet on Australia’s schools” is the provocative title of a recent Productivity Commission draft report1. It seems that spending per student has increased by 14% over the past 10 years but performance has not improved. However, it would have been far better if the report “lifted the bonnet on policy in general” because there is evidence that suggests little to none of our spending delivers the desired outcomes.

A 2012 study2 commissioned by the Victorian Auditors General Office found that $100b of project expenditure over a 10 year period had not impacted on any high level policy goals at all. There was no evidence that literacy and numeracy had improved, hospital waiting times had decreased, traffic congestion had improved, or that crime had decreased. Some have argued that the results might have gone backwards if the projects had not been undertaken, but this is a weak argument. The poor results were reported across all agencies and business-as-usual expenditure is meant to keep performance steady; project expenditure is discretionary and should result in improvements to performance!

The State of Victoria is normally considered an exemplar so a detailed follow up study was performed in 2015 to see if the results could be replicated in the State of NSW3. This second study produced identical results for the majority of the period studied and a slightly better result for a period when strategic policy goals stayed the same from reporting period to reporting period.

What is going on? The public sector reports the amount spent against each of its programmes so no one doubts that outputs were delivered and the money was spent as reported. However, money spent and outputs delivered is not the same as outcomes realised. It seems what is happening is that public servants are staying at the transactional level of delivering outputs and managing their budget. They are not taking responsibility for outcomes because there are too many external factors which are outside their direct control.

A catalyst for change may have occurred in 2013 with the introduction of the PGPA Act. Reporting now has to include an assessment of whether policy outcomes are achieved or not. It is too soon to say whether the PGPA Act will have the desired effect. It will take time for a pattern to emerge and even then, the Productivity Commission report shows that reporting of consistently bad results does not mean they will improve.

A more proactive approach is needed. We need to make explicit the intervention logic of our programmes and projects so that we can respond if we find the outcomes are not being realised. At the moment, it is not uncommon to fund some idea and then simply hope it will work. The results strongly suggest this approach is not working and we need more discipline with our investments. We might be able to learn from the project management discipline which has recently discovered programme management4 and benefits management5. We need to extract the best of previous approaches such as Investment Logic Maps, Value Chains and Evaluation. It is an uncharted road ahead, but someone needs to do it. The alternative is to wait for another Productivity Report…




1.            Productivity Commission. Lifting the bonnet on Australia’s schools. (2016).

2.            Young, R., Young, M., Jordan, E. & O’Connor, P. Is strategy being implemented through projects? Contrary evidence from a leader in New Public Management. Int. J. Proj. Manag. 30, (2012).

3.            Young, R. & Grant, J. Is strategy implemented by projects? Disturbing evidence in the State of NSW. Int. J. Proj. Manag. 33, 15–28 (2015).

4.            Office of Government Commerce. Managing Successful Programmes. (The Stationery Office, 2007).

5.            Jenner, S. Managing Benefits. (The Stationary Office, 2012).