VOCA

An aviation researcher, writer, aviation participant, pilot & agricultural researcher. Author of over 35 scientific publications world wide.

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Fixing the Problem

To fix the problem of improper practices will take the will of a lot of committed people from Industry and the Parliament. It will require a distinct new flavour to fix a current mess.

Judicial Inquiry:

There have been both current and past calls for a judicial inquiry, due to some of the serious deficiencies of both the ATSB report and the non-provided CASA reports. These follow actual and perceived interference of individual political sources and departmental individuals.

New Approach to Legislation:

Many believe the only solution to the malaise, problems and lack of confidence in the regulator [CASA] and the Air Safety Investigator [ATSB] can only be “fixed” with a complete removal of the current regulations and Act with a suitable alternative such as the NZ Act and Regulations.

Other Views:

Geoffrey Edwards makes a very well constructed attempt to delve into aviation from a non-aviators point of view in the following, to describe where some of the problems are located. This would give assistance to the Senate Committee:

EDWARDS_Geoffrey-rev_Mar09

or download from here:

http://www.infrastructure.gov.au/aviation/nap/files_green_paper/EDWARDS_Geoffrey-rev_Mar09.pdf

In part it says:

 

WHO GUARDS THE PUBLIC INTEREST IN CIVIL AVIATION SAFETY?

ABSTRACT

This article seeks to define ‘public interest’ in safety in Australian civil aviation. It focuses on governance. Reforms from 1982 were underpinned by fiscal cost-consciousness and argument over whether the public, fare-paying passengers or industry were the clients. They lacked a sound theory: the neo-liberal theory of bureaucratic failure and the new managerialist policy of fiscal efficiency have been inadequate to explain how to arrange the residual regulatory affairs. 

Executive boards were established as statutory bodies to exercise sovereign coercive power but this fractured accountability. Governance now is organisationally more complex and system coherence has suffered. Managerial competence was a major contributing factor.

Critics claim that the number of near misses indicates that the system is an `accident waiting to happen’; supporters claim that the low numbers of accidents shows that the regime is working satisfactorily despite cutting $A100 million per year of ‘padding’ from previous budgets.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Measuring Safety

Normative standards of aviation safety exist: the protocols, codes and guidelines of ICAO. Systems can be conducive or anti-conducive to reaching those standards and so to avoiding accidents. These pre-disposing systems are resistant to quantitative summation so there is no simple, aggregate measure of safety. The number of occurrences is not an adequate measure but simply one of several possible indexes of the most prominent failures, viewed in hindsight (APH, 2004). There are always multiple contributing causative factors. A regime could be riddled with systemic narrow margins such as `just in time’ inventories of spare parts, tighter manning levels and outsourced maintenance, but these vulnerabilities may not yet show in the statistics.

In any case, the existence of normative technical standards does not answer critical questions about where the public interest lies: how much priority is to be given to safety over other considerations in a mixed economy and especially the national budget; who should be responsible for ensuring that the ICAO standards are implemented; and should ICAO be implemented by voluntary, market or regulatory means?

Organisational Changes

The administration of Australian aviation now is organisationally more complex. From the pre-1982 Department there are now separate entities for policy, safety regulation, air services and airports. New bodies for airspace reform and search and rescue have been mooted. Stability has suffered, policy disputes externalised and accountability fractured. The rationalist slicing of functions did not achieve even clear accountability, let alone system coherence or acceptance by the operatives who have to make the systems work.

While adequate funding is not sufficient to maintain a high standard of safety, it is necessary. Budgetary starvation can be a `latent failure’. Deregulation can be achieved by under-resourcing the regulator as effectively as revoking legislation (Nendick, 1994:6/422). It is in the public interest to have a well-funded regulator and service provider not dependent on industry or the sales of services for its income and staffed by people whose remuneration does not contain incentives to downsize or outsource safety operations.

Undoubtedly the unleashing of commercial pressures has reduced fares, has allowed more people including working people to fly and has boosted mobility-dependent industries such as tourism. It is easy to criticise the old Department of Aviation for feather-bedding, but neither it nor the governments it served saw fiscal leanness as in the public interest: it was more concerned with safety, reliability and national development. In that it was successful, for it delivered one of the five best safety regimes in global aviation.

Governing Boards

It is inefficient and inappropriate to establish executive boards to administer core governmental functions such as regulation and policy. Safety regulation is not merely an operational matter but an exercise of sovereign coercive power.
Where an executive board is appointed, the capacity of the minister to make directions is weakened. This leaves unelected board members — who may never have held public office or may have other axes to grind — with a primary role in determining where the public interest lies.

The government’s ultimate responsibility for safety cannot be delegated to proxy bodies or to industry. In any case, the ministerial prerogative to appoint carries risks of politicising the function, that is, of appointing people for their connections rather than their suitability.

The establishment of executive boards, whether enjoying regulatory powers or not, and whether commercialised or not, can be anti-conducive to the public interest, partly because the permanent public service with all its ethical traditions and never-ending preoccupation with the public interest is sidelined. Issues bubble up to the minister’s office where they are more subject to the enthusiasms of the day. The boards become accountable for governing their corporation in accordance with the corporate charter, which is a crystallised product of the orthodoxy of the day. The directors are required to neglect the undefined and ever-changing public interest, unless the legislation or corporate charter specifically places upon them an overarching obligation to do so. A declaration as parsimonious as that in the legislation governing CASA or ASA would have been useful. An obligation to place safety as the highest priority is an inadequate substitute, because it is easy to assert that private interests are equally capable of achieving safety.

Theory of Public Sector Organisation

The neo-liberal theory of bureaucratic failure (Stigler, 1971) that animated economic deregulation in the West has been inadequate to explain how to arrange the residual regulatory affairs. Similarly, the new managerialist policy of fiscal efficiency has been inadequate for the task. This should be no surprise, for numerous scholars in public administration such as Plowden (1994) have written eloquently about the deficiencies of instrumental economic rationality and fragmented accountability.
In Australia, the energies of reformers like Smith were not steered effectively along a feasible path of institutional reform. There was no identifiable entity steering the health of the system as a whole, except perhaps the minister, who had a crushing workload and could not have been expected to act as a public sector manager. Also, there seems to have been no process for dialogue and policy analysis that participants have felt is fair. CASA has been left to heal itself.

The study has not been able to demonstrate that a public service-delivery model of safety administration is better or worse for safety than an industry-led model, partly because `better’ and `worse’ are fluid, partly because control experiments cannot be re-run, and partly because the private-sector led model has not been applied comprehensively. There has been a pervasive and narrowly conceived fiscal cost-consciousness rather than a systematic attempt to replace bureau responsibility with aviation operator responsibility.

Where Does Public Interest Lie?

Public interest in aviation safety is in practice defined by “every staff member in their own operations” (McIntyre, 2001), especially by the key decision-makers. So in turn public interest is shaped by the process and values under which key people are appointed to their positions. These have not been transparent and the language of public interest has been absent from the debate.

Managerial competence was a major factor contributing to instability during the years of reform after 1982. En route, the reforms failed at several levels: poor acceptance by stakeholders; weak forums for multi-lateral dialogue and reconciliation; fragmented accountability; clumsy executive management. These are failures of routine administration. A capable departmental Secretary and CASA CEO with a supportive CASA Chair should have been able to manage them away, even in the teeth of unrelenting fiscal pressure from the Department of Finance.

It is not possible from the material gathered to be certain whether the reforms of the post-1980 period were ultimately ‘successful’. Critics of the current regime can claim that the number of near misses indicates that the system is an `accident waiting to happen’; supporters can claim that the absence of jet fatalities shows that the regime is still working satisfactorily despite the cutting of $100 million per year of padding from the previous budgets.

Having said that, however, three fundamental observations can be made.

First, some of the internal problems have not yet been resolved. The 2008 Issues Paper and Green Paper and public submissions indicate that a coordinated and forward-looking air traffic policy is missing; tensions characterise the relationship between CASA and ATSB; and after more than a decade, the conversion of regulations to performance-based format is still incomplete. Was CASA’s skills base eroded too much in the 1990s or is the whole notion of non-prescriptive regulation misconceived anyway?

Second, global air travel is extraordinarily safe. Internationally, safety is not politicised and is not a subject of geo-political wrangling. Governments can achieve extraordinary results if they apply collective minds to an objective that is accepted as being in the public interest of all.

Third, the instability has been fuelled by the lack of a shared understanding of whether the safety regime’s customers are industry, the travelling public or the community. Until the leadership articulates a clear conception of public interest, the staff will never know whose interests they labour to serve.