Friday, August 10, 2012

the tyranny of mediocracy

Once upon a time there was a Westminster system of government in a kingdom far, far away. Wherever there was an area of government to be watched over – for example, housing – an elected member of parliament was given the title of Minister and a pay rise, and he [in those days it was usually a he] became the head honcho of that part of the public service e.g. a housing ministry.

If the ministry under the control of the Minister did something naughty, the Minister resigned because it was the decent thing to do. To make sure the ministry did nothing naughty, the Minister monitored the ministry by conducting audits.

Some claim it's a system we inherited, but now it has been replaced by a newer system of government.

It’s called delegated authority and it is a form of tyranny.


Governments pass laws and set up authorities to administer them. Governments don’t bother about the finer details, these are left to the authorities to work out. This is much the same as the Ministry system – so far.

Authorities – unlike Ministries – can become a law unto themselves, passing and finessing rules and regulations, sub-contracting jobs to private corporations, with both the authority and the sub-contractor answerable to no one unless the government also decides to set up an authority to police the authority.

Just to avoid any confusion, the authority watching over the authority is called a Tribunal. A tribunal is independent, which means the government has no more control over it than it has over the original authority.

Still with me?

State governments pass laws saying we should not drive too fast, and how fast we should go on which roads. These speeds are often monitored by cameras stuck to the underside of bridges. Operation of some of these cameras has been sub-contracted to – wait for it – Serco.


Now it has been quite a few years since I had anything to do with measuring systems but, if memory serves, the Australian Standard for measuring systems has two main requirements relevant to this story:
  1. Regular calibration of measuring instruments
  2. Regular testing of measuring instruments

[Re]Calibration is a simple concept. The whole measuring gizmo is sent to some experts who restore it to its original level of accuracy. Springs are tested to ensure they have the right springiness, nuts are tightened, circuit boards replaced – whatever it takes to make the gizmo good as new.
Calibration is done, say, once a year. It’s expensive, and while the gizmo is away being recalibrated the user is gizmo-less.

Testing is a separate business. To reduce unnecessary re-calibration, a simple test is devised to suggest whether or not the gizmo needs re-calibration before its next service is due.

The quality standard for the motor industry is incredibly demanding. It has to be if you are making air bags that could explode too easily, or detonate forcefully enough to harm a passenger, or if a screw that is half a millimetre too small might cause someone’s brakes to fail.

Apart from rulers – which tend to provide pretty much the same measurements from one day to the next – many of the measuring instruments used when I worked in the motor industry were tested four times a day – every time a batch of parts were selected for quality control checks.

Here’s a reasonable example of a problem from the 2010 SNAFU with point to point cameras on the Hume.

“It's understood the clock on one camera [was]… out of synch with a second camera.”

Now the challenge, dear reader[s],  is to suggest one regular test -e.g. daily - for point to point cameras.


The success rate of one particular set of Eastlink cameras is a statistical outlier of sorts. Or even an out-and-out-liar, if you like.

If the cameras are correct, every day, thousands of people drive within the speed limit for miles along Eastlink and then for some inexplicable reason, as they approach the Wellington Road bridge they speed up and drive like hoons for a couple of hundred metres, and then suddenly start driving within the speed limit again.

“Every fixed speed camera is tested for accuracy every three months and one of the tests involves a vehicle with a calibrated speedometer.

Three months!


Now, an engineer has finally taken the government to court to demand access to records showing how the reliability of the cameras has been tested. And he succeeded!

He was not given access to these records because government is transparent, or because it is reasonable, but because he has an unblemished record going years back, and because he was able to prove how he tested them himself, and explain to the court the engineering theory behind the tests.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Road Traffic Authority was as accountable as a Ministry? If someone was answerable to Parliament? If regular quality system audits were used instead of people having to call for the establishment of an independent Tribunal? If statistical outliers were taken seriously?

If ordinary people did not have to spend their own time and money taking on the court system - all the way to the Supreme Court* - just to be treated reasonably?

Who will watch the watchdog watching the watchers?

[For visitors - Supreme Court = the highest State court cf High Court = federal


  1. My goodness, I thought we had problems here in Italy. Don't get me started on Italian politics. Hello from Rome, have a nice week!

    1. Francesca, I promise not to get you started on Italian politics OR Italian traffic!

      Tanti belli cosi.

  2. I don't trust speed cameras because there are too many variables which include the weather, tyre pressures and faulty speedos etc, etc.

    1. And what about those ridiculous speed 'advisory' thingies on the Hume?

  3. Even a policewoman was nabbed by the East Link camera. I am usually pretty sceptical about the doubts of their accuracy, but I think this one may well have been inaccurate. Now if the government wants to remove itself even more, it privatises. Serco is a company just like G4S that was recently discussed.

    1. Somedays, the traffic approaching that bridge is a bit like the traffic approaching a school zone, it slows suddenly and dawdles for a while [as opposed to speeding up which the number of complaints would suggest].

      My eyes glazed over before when I took a peek at a google list, but I might give in soon and try to discover just how many of our tenders have gone to certain companies.