Is the 'expert' undervalued in the public sector?

October 5, 2018

Following on from my previous post about the dimunition of free and frank advice in the public sector performance (Are we well-served by the public sector?) This post explores another theme that came up in the recent panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies - the value placed on expertise in the public sector.

 

One attendee asked the salient question: 'Does something need to be done to retain expertise in the public sector?', making reference to the ongoing debacle over Wellington buses. I would reframe that question slightly, at least as it relates to the environmental policy, to the following:

 

 

'Does something need to be done to re-establish expertise in the public sector?'

 

I will draw on both first-hand experience and historic context to explain my emphasis. First the first-hand experience. I have witnessed not simply the neglect or the undervaluing of expertise and institutional knowledge, but the outright rejection of it. This manifested itself in one instance in a major restructure of a Ministry, the result of which many of the more senior (and more experienced) officials were given redundancy or 'encouraged' to move on to roles elsewhere. (I suspect that this was driven by budgetry considerations - their salaries would have been at the higher end of the range - but I cannot know for sure.) Then a few years later, the same Ministry made it very explicit (ie it was in every job description for prospective applicants) that the following qualifications were most desired for anyone applying to be a senior policy analyst: economics, law, and public policy (in that order, it seemed clear). For avoidance of doubt, these were for roles developing and evaluating environmental policy. Those with resource management or environmental science qualifications were tolerated but were not on the 'desirables' list, nor was anyone with a background in environmental planning or similar. Apparently, these type of individuals are too 'boxed in' in their thinking and cannot do the 'blue skies' or 'first principles' thinking that was in vogue at the time (perhaps still is?). The 'generalist' was in, the 'subject-matter expert' was decidedly out. (Part of me wonders too, is this in fact directly related to the increasingly prevalent desire of senior officials to give ministers the advice they want? In other words, are generalists with no direct experience of the policy area more readily malleable?) Numerous experienced analysts with the 'wrong' credentials left feeling that they had no future at the Ministry.

 

Of course, not long after this change in recruitment and promotion focus (which led to an exodus of those with environmental management experience), the government decided that a major reform of the Resource Management Act was due, and well, a few people with some understanding of planning and the legislative framework might be handy ... But no worries! This expertise could all be contracted back in as consultants!

 

As for institutional knowledge, at an average tenure of 3 years and 3 months (when I was there anyway, this may have changed), it is quite hard to build this up, especially if you have spent the first year or two 'learning the ropes' as someone with no previous knowledge of environmental policy, planning or its implementation in the real world.

 

So these examples provide some context around this question from my own experiences (and I suspect, of many others) of the public sector, but in fact the devaluation of expertise and institutional knowledge goes back a lot further than this - to the 1980s' reforms of the public sector. Many of you will know where I am going with this... but I will return to this aspect in a subsequent blog. 

 

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