By Phil Bilbrough
I don’t usually defend bureaucrats. Yet every day I feel for more and more of them. Many will have an uncertain job future. Many are perceived badly. I have heard many stories of public service bureaucrat’s do-nothing tangles, yet one part of me feels for these people. Its because they work in a vice.
Years ago people chose to work for the Government, to be in the service of the public. In Wellington, people left their houses to the Government in their wills. This is not the case of not making a Will so it all goes to the Government, no some Wellington people chose to leave their houses to the Government for the benefit of New Zealand. MPs and their families live in those houses when they move to Wellington. That was another time. People don’t join the public service to serve the public anymore. Our ministries and Government departments probably had to change – they had to get more efficient and show much more accountability than the old fashioned – trust in your employee and their own sense of responsibility.
And where is our public service now? I expect that most ministries are offering the New Zealand public much more for less money. This is not to say that the occasional IT project does not go massively haywire or that a great new idea swallows large amounts of money before it gets pass go (only to then be dismissed), or a bungle sees whole suburb of state houses being left to a local mob chapter or an incompatible data format means that a couple of education departments can’t share data and meaningfully work together. There is also the consultant or contractor that comes in to “consult”, but finds the only thing needed is to do the job of the current employees. Never mind.
I still feel for many bureaucrats.
The public sector are criticized in isolation. The private sector screws up as well. The massive takeovers and buy-ups of brands that by the very action of being purchased immediately lose value. ANZ buying Postbank and perhaps ANZ buying National Bank are cases in point. I have also been aware of private sector companies charging into transformation projects only to revert to the previous ways of business – much like the public sector. Then there are the Hanovers and Blue Chips of this world – great finance companies those – they probably lost money quicker than any public sector enterprise. Lets not forget how much money South Canterbury Finance blew. Also, the Government deserves some managerial respect. Has the private sector ever run – simultaneously – 20+ hospitals, 1000s of schools, a justice system, a punishment system, a welfare system, a roading system, and even a biosecurity system?
Either way I know that many bureaucrats do want to do something. They probably want to achieve something for themselves or quite possibly for the public that they are serving, but many can’t or don’t because of their political masters.
Maybe it started with Helen Clark or maybe way before her, but there are a number of Ministers currently demanding “no surprises” and “no bad news” from their ministries. And that’s what they get. Ministries running complex programmes in difficult situations with difficult sections of the domestic or overseas public. Like industry development programmes, overseas market development projects, youth offender programmes, perhaps health education programmes, any criminal rehabilitation programme, management of the mentally ill or severely physically handicapped. Will all news be good news in programmes like these? No. Will mistakes be made – yes. Does the New Zealand public want a ministry to learn from the mistakes and do better – I DO. Obviously politicians don’t think that the NZ public will accept any failure and that un-acceptance will be actioned at the election.
So your boss only wants to hear good news and you can’t always provide it. What do you do? Well what do you do? Pick some bits out it, merge it with another report of a similar project, keep it a draft report or rewrite it so it looks neither good nor bad, just unintelligible. What you then do is get massively frustrated.
So the news becomes good or negligible early in the process. There is not a ministry of propaganda but then it isn’t required. Because bad news doesn’t get generated.
What do the public hear from our Government ministries? Good, bland or irrelevant news. Maybe bad news reports from Ministries aren’t being suppressed, but that is because the reports aren’t actually getting published. The facts drift off somewhere. Will any Government learn from their current work and hopefully improve management of the ministries and their programmes and projects? Probably but very very slowly. Squeezing the bureaucrats happens much quicker.