This blog looks past partisan politics to find solutions and provide insights into public policy. It is the companion blog to the author's on-line training course in democracy and civic action: www.3ptraining.com.au
It covers a wide spectrum of issues from local to international concerns.
It was previously the support blog for the author's biography "Finding Home, An Autobiographical Account of a Child Migrant Growing on the Edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness” available from Amazon.
Erik is a public policy professional and owner of the online training course in democracy and civic action: www.3ptraining.com.au
…explores ways to create a sustainable and just community. Explores how that community can be best protected at all levels including social policy/economics/ military.
Erik’s autobiography is a humorous read about serious things. It concerns living in the bush, wilderness, home education, spirituality, and activism. Finding Home is available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble and all good e-book sellers.
Getting the Most out of Public Service in an Time of Austerity
There are two basic truths
about the public service. First, the demand for government services is ever
growing and insatiable. Second, the willingness and ability of governments to
finance the public service is finite. In the end, we have the public service we
can afford. The service lives in the tension between these two things. How then
to get best value for money?
First, what can the public service do well?
If enough intelligent people
are given enough job security to feel comfortable speaking truth to power, then
the public service is capable of long term strategic thinking. The same is true
of Universities, and of think tanks that are actually about thinking rather
than pushing an ideological agenda. That is why job security matters.
The service is capable of
objectivity in a way that politicians are not and consequently is better
equipped to moderate competing demands and deliver good policy on a range of
the right people are in the right positions, the
service is also capable of understanding science. This is hugely important
because politicians generally don’t understand science, particularly in this
country. They tend to be lawyers, business people, ex unionists, or persons
with a background in community service. There is almost no one in the Federal
Parliament with a background in engineering, medicine or environmental science.
It’s one of the reasons why our government is just plain dumb when it comes to
things like coal seam fracking, climate change, and defence procurement.
Finally, the service has a
long history of delivering defined services to defined groups of people in
specific ways. It’s like a big train that, once on track, just keeps going. The
introduction of the GST, the change from Imperial to metric measurement, and
the change from the sterling to the dollar were singular triumphs.
What does the public service struggle with?
Once upon a time I worked for the Commonwealth Environment
Department writing management plans for marine reserves. Essentially that meant
making rules to restrict certain fishing methods and gear types in various bits
of ocean. Of the 20 or so people on the team one was a recreational fisherman.
None had ever worked on a commercial fishing boat and most had never been on
one. There was no relevant induction or training – like spending a couple of
weeks working with the guys in industry. I was one of only four people with a
background in compliance. After a 10 year process (I was there for six months) one
of the bosses suddenly realized that compliance was going to be an issue – like
for example in the entire Coral Sea. Hmmm, maybe Queensland could look after
that… State governments are better on the whole because of Australia’s odd
constitutional arrangements, they do a lot of the actual service delivery.
focused expert teams
It is a common story that a
large well funded government organisation failed to deliver powered flight but
a couple of bicycle mechanics working at the same time did. There is an energy
that happens in small teams that can’t be replicated any other way. Plus they
are more efficient. While the Wright brother’s story is often cited as an
example of why business does it better, the fact is that any organisation that
grows beyond a certain size will require more bureaucracy and operate less
efficiently. For that reason large organisations work best as collectives of
lines of accountability
The message coming out of
the inquiry into the national home insulation scheme (which led to several home
fires and deaths) is that everyone is sort of responsible but no one is really.
That lack of accountability is common in large Departments and is something
that bedevils Defence. It is the reason why Australia was unable to maintain
its submarine fleet in state of operational readiness. Accountability has to
stop with an individual who is resourced intellectually and materially to
understand what is going on and to ask the hard questions. That person will
never be a government minister. Ministers are too busy and have too many
competing demands. They rely on those under them to manage risk. That means
that if there is a stuff-up, the person accountable needs to be sacked because
they had it in writing at the start that it was their responsibility.
The person responsible must
be qualified or have relevant other expertise. I wager there were very few
electricians managing the home insulation scheme. At both State and Federal
level the service needs far fewer BAs and LLBs and lots more engineers,
scientists and people from industry. In the home insulation example there were
obvious rorts but nice middle class university graduates just don’t think like
that. A lot could be gained from a program that gave bureaucrats first hand
In the Second World War no
one came even close to the tactical brilliance achieved by the Germans and
Japanese. On the eastern front the kill ratio was seven Russians to every
German. There are many reasons for this but one seldom discussed is that
forward commanders were allowed to take their own initiative and respond to the
battle without getting permission from the higher ranks. The British only
really every achieved the same level of initiative with commando units.
In the public service
initiative is frowned upon. It is seen
as insubordinate and risky. Those on a fixed salary have no incentive to take
risks because they will likely not be rewarded for success. However they may be
penalized for failure, so it is safest to stick with whatever makes the
hierarchy happy and keep plodding. In the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in
India it became a talking point that those at the bottom were working hard,
those at the top were brilliant, but there was complete paralysis in the
middle. People need to be given explicit permission to fail, and assurance that
they won’t be penalized for trying.
managers to sack underperforming staff
Machiavelli observed that it
is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Having worked with
underperforming staff I know the frustration of dealing with inept people who
know they won’t be sacked. There is no reason why, if the job description is
clear, that work goals cannot be set and long term underperformers cannot be
got rid of. The sad fact is that while many worked hard, even heroically, too
many people did too little for too long and now the entire service is being
hammered. Output managers who sack staff should be thought well of, not looked
at askance. Would that result in unfair dismissals? Yes in some cases, because
incompetent managers feel threatened or because they are on a power trip. On
the other hand capable people will pick up work elsewhere. Overall it is better
to shed the dead wood.
incentives for initiative and productivity
Which brings me to the other
side of the same coin – good workers are not rewarded, they just tend to get
asked to do more. Productivity can be a hard thing to measure. How to you
measure policy advice, research or financial analysis, or staff management?
However a lot of front line service can be measured. There is no reason why
incentive bonuses shouldn’t be paid were practical in the public service.
Outsourcing is often held up
by the pro-business crowd as a panacea of many of the ills I have mentioned.
Sometimes it is cheaper to hire outside expertise but there are also risks.
First is that if key services become dependent on contractors those contractors
gain a lot of leverage in price negotiations. Second, relationships can become
too cosy by far. Third, you risk losing important in-house expertise. Fourth,
public servants have to do pretty much whatever they are told. Contractors
don’t have to step an inch outside their contract terms which means everything
has to be negotiated.
Governments often get
criticised for spending too much money on consultants. However there is often a
wealth of freely available knowledge within the ranks of the organisation that
doesn’t filter up, and a wealth of open source knowledge that just needs time
to access. University graduate staff are very good at this and they don’t
charge $100 per hour. I have yet to work in a place that had a knowledge/skills
register but I have been reprimanded for approaching a subject matter expert in
my (then) own Department and talking to people outside.
Highly qualified specialists
seldom work for government. They can make more money, have more fun, and
achieve greater career satisfaction elsewhere. However one thing they like to
do, particularly in semi-retirement, is sit on boards and committees that look
into interesting things. Expert boards thus provide a cost effective way for
government to purchase independent expertise across any issue. Further, if they
report publicly or to the Minister, they can break the deadlock created by
self-seeking agency heads advising unqualified ministers on the basis of advice
from uniformed underlings. This is an obvious way of addressing the lack of
internal technical expertise in areas such as health, defence, and natural
resource management. Indeed, one of the things the Department of Defence
steadfastly resists is independent expert boards reporting to the Minister.
There seems to have been a
time, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s when a person on graduating university could
get a public service job, underperform for 40 years and look forward to a
generous retirement. Those days are over and increaslingly the service will
have to justify its existence and do more with less. There needs to be a
generational culture shift.
I am sure I am not the only
one with good ideas so feel free to make comment.