Speaker by Various Artists


Memorandum To: Citizens of NZ

by PubServant

You don't often hear from us. I'm one of the people who manages the machine that digests forms and sends out cheques (and takes your money, of course).

The reason you don't hear from us much is because we aren't allowed to talk to you much. We're only allowed to speak through our "corporate communications" in case we say something the wrong way. Because if we fumble our message a bit, The Media tend to leap on our every stuff up and blow it up into a Big Deal. So I'm afraid that means you get a bland, partially digested diet of wank words and bullshit most of the time. But I'm sure most of you realise that.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that we have noticed that times are getting hard. We aren't smugly sitting here in our ivory towers, gazing out at you poor souls in the private sector thinking "phew, at least my jobs safe". That's for two reasons. Firstly, it isn't. Our jobs I mean. Probably more secure than many of yours, but we do still worry. But mainly it's because most of us do actually give a shit.

What we tend to do (certainly for our first few years in the public sector) is think of great ideas to make our systems more efficient. Often we'll find a sympathetic manager and say "why don't we do X? That would make things easier / cheaper / faster for people".

Then we hit the problem. You see, we're drowning. Our collective heads are almost disappearing under the waves because of lots of well-meaning law and process that has actually resulted in a bad outcome. These things were done with the best of intentions, based on good theory. But when coupled with media serving people with the attention span of a goldfish, have ended up making it impossible to actually get anything done.

On top of that, we've seen lots of Head Office bloat in the last few years. Rooms of endless meetings going on and on about "Vision" and "Strategy" ... interesting how the best private sector firms don't stuff around with all that. I have a feeling that we felt a bit inadequate because we didn't have all the things that CEOs in big private businesses get to play with - you know, HR strategies and Corporate Compliance units. We just had a thing called The Law, which we have to carry out.

I saw this thing in a book once about how people in the institutional banks in the UK used to get posted if they weren't doing too well: FILTHK (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). I have to wonder if people who fail in the private sector sometimes end up being posted to Wellington (and it is a noticeably Wellington issue...). To be clear, I don't think these people are malicious or stupid. I just think they are, well, a bit distant from reality. They've started to believe the management books and "Best Practice" guides.

I've got dozens of examples from my own place, but, as I'm terrified of being identified because Talking to the Public is a Bad Thing, I'll have to cover my tracks a bit.

We have a surplus of lawyers in NZ. In most countries they are kept busy suing Councils for footpaths that trip people up - and you can't do that here, so they have to find something else to do. It seems they tend to end up in the public sector, over analysing statutes and interpreting them in the worst possible way (because many of them have never worked in the real world - they come straight from law school). Acts get over analysed, and rarely with any thought as to what an ordinary person would think. And because it's not The Done Thing for a government department to end up in Court to clarify a legal point, the theoretical "legal opinion" tends to be accepted and not tested.

For example, the Official Information Act was designed to make sure that public servants can't cover up when they stuff up. Or that the truth be revealed so that we can all make the right decision.

It has clauses that say (and I'm converting to plain English because you know what laws read like...) "stuff need not be released if it would mean public servants would feel they couldn't have full and frank discussions".

After the lawyers end up stuffing around with it, this means that everything is discoverable. So we end up either a) writing 'draft' on everything (this makes it less likely to be released) or b) not saying it at all.

This means nobody in, say, the NZ Police can ever write down an argument that might be true, but is a bit contentious. For example, the statement "Were illicit drugs decriminalised in a carefully regulated way, it would free up 4000 police officers, halve the prison population and destroy the power base of organised crime in NZ" would never be put in a document even if just for discussion, because it contradicts policy and the media would have a field day with it. Quite rightly, because it needs to be discussed. It becomes an unwritten truth, one of those things that we Can't Do Anything About, so we roll our eyes and carry on beating our heads against an impossible problem.

Another good example is all the law around careful management of public money. Great intentions, but combined with a culture that says "the auditor is always right [and believe me, they're not most of the time - if you can't do, teach. And if you are really crap, become an auditor] then you end up in a situation where stupid rules are put in place so that rather than have someone take responsibility for a decision, a committee is formed and reports are written. This means there's a thing called an 'audit trail' so you can completely fail to identify who stuffed up if something goes wrong.

We call it "all hold hands and make a decision".

I recently heard of a situation where a project was completed ahead of schedule, on time and under budget. Much of this was that the person running it didn't bother waiting for pointless meetings and reports. Instead he just got on and did it, thereby saving the taxpayer two hundred thousand dollars. The audit report on the project flagged it as being very "high risk" in a number of areas. The best bit was the audit report was completed after the project was finished! So they knew it had worked at the time of writing! Did this guy get a medal for being pragmatic and sensible? No, he gets called in for a Stern Talking To. Will he ever try and do anything like that again? I doubt it. And we're all poorer.

Here's one of my favourites. There was an article in a law newsletter recently that held up a case of a sacking by the IRD as a perfect example of how to get rid of a useless employee. I'm guessing they went through committees and panels to appoint him in the first place. I expect there were several people who thought he shouldn't have been hired, but they hired him anyway, because after all they'd followed "The Process".

Reading between the lines, when they realised he simply couldn't do the job they started The Process of sacking him. It took three years, and then another four years in court. Eventually he lost. But this is held up as the perfect way to sack someone! If it had been the private sector he would have been out on his ear and awarded a few grand by a tribunal. On our side of the fence we spend (I'm guessing) hundreds of thousands of dollars on The Process, because the CEO (and minister) might get beaten up in the press over the payout.

When we buy stuff, there are laws to say how it must be done. These have been around for years. They were designed to reduce the cost of stuff ups. Interestingly, what they've done is replaced the chance of a cost blow out with a guarantee of spending far more than necessary on paperwork and "Governance". In the private sector, a typical project budgets 15 - 30% of cost for management and administration.

In the public sector it starts at 30%. Because the rules a blindly applied, it means there's a minimum set of paperwork for everything. These aren't meant to be applied across the board, but woe betide you if you get caught out trying to save some money and then an Issue arises. Years of habit and cover-your-arse have developed a generation of public servants who live by meetings, committees and reports. And a bunch of auditors who NEVER say "it was pleasing to see that processes were not followed unnecessarily, thereby saving the taxpayer X million dollars".

So here's the thing my fellow citizens. In a democracy you get the government you deserve.

There are lots of us that want to get on and make things better. But we're never going to do it while these beat-ups carry on. When people like the over-worked probation officer who decided that William Bell didn't need to be closely monitored (let's face it, he was just a drunk on parole after his first offence...) stuff up, bear in mind that that event is going to result in a plague of new paperwork that probably won't make any practical difference. When you call for "consultation" or "inquiries", all that happens generally is that several millions of dollars are spent and everything just stops.

You need to let your MP know that you don't believe the headlines that are written by a copywriter in Australia (have you noticed how the headline often contradicts the story?) and that talkback is a minority of nutters that don't represent your views.

Because only when the normal, sane, silent majority of sensible Kiwis make themselves heard will we start to unravel all the crap law and policy that has built up like fat in a middle aged artery over the last twenty years. We need to be able to sprint at the moment, and it just ain't happening.

Now I just need to wait while they hunt me down...

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