Are we well-served by our public sector? The 'rat in the wheel' effect


Earlier this week, I was privileged to be invited to participate on a panel discussing proposed changes to the State Sector Act, hosted by the Institute of Goverance and Policy Studies ... "Yawn!" I hear you utter ... Yes, it true - this does sound very dry, but in fact the proper functioning of the public service is critical to a properly functioning democracy. I discuss the implications of a public service that is not functioning as well as it should for environmental outcomes in my book Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand.

Justifiably, much of the discussion focused on free and frank advise, including my own presentation. (Also see Simon Chapple's thought-provoking article on this topic: Reviving the spineless public service.) But it feels to me like this only captures the tip of the iceberg. After the talk I had the opportunity to talk with a former colleague of mine at the government department I worked at as a policy analyst for nearly 10 years. This person told me how they had been working on a strategic 'scanning' document seeking to identify issues that New Zealand will face in the future. The work they had been tasked with sounded astoundingly similiar to a piece of work I had been tasked with only a year or so before in another division of the same department. And guess what, this person was completely unaware of the work I had done, as I suspect were the managers that assigned it to them.

Why were they unaware of the piece of work I had done? Because after everyone read it and nodded 'yes, very important and we need to do something with this', it joined countless other documents languishing in the bloated archives, never to be seen again.

Even more depressingly (sorry about this), many officials* know, even when they are in the midst of such work, that it will go nowhere - rather like a rat in a wheel. And quite often it doesn't deserve to. Often the questions being asked are the wrong ones, and the 'issues' being examined are not priorities. Why are they being looked at then?, I hear you ask. Because they are uncontroversial, comfortably abstract or intellectual, do not challenge the ideologies of the day or align well with the objectives of the government of the day (so ).

Sadly, this is not a rare occurrence. Far from it in fact. Though I admit, I haven't seen any hard stats on this, I would hazard a guess that the majority of work that policy analysts like my former self and my colleague work on in government departments ends up going nowhere, achieving nothing. Moreover, a vanishingly small proportion of the 'stuff' officials work on ends up having positive outcomes in the real world. (Reflecting this reality, policy-oriented departments often measure their success by counting how many briefing notes, cabinet papers etc made it to their Minister this week, month etc, rather than asking 'what positive outcomes did our work have in the real world this month, year?')

So my question is, is this good enough? Well, my answer would be a resounding 'No'. Quite apart from it wasting a collosal amount of resources and money (taxpayer money, I should add), but also, for every 'go nowhere' project an official works on (only for another offical to repeat the entire exercise a year or so later, oblivious to the earlier work), there are numerous urgent issues our country is facing that are not getting the attention and resources they need.

* I should emphasise I am talking mainly about public servants who do policy here - not the ones that do front-line work (though I am sure they have plenty of stories to tell about misdirected resources too!)

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