Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday reading - the tragedy of the Commonwealth public service

Some of our public service is great, top notch. But much of it...

Russell Hill's war on accountability

Markus Mannheim
Canberra Times
Saturday March 17, 2012

I don't know retired major-general John Cantwell; I've neither met him nor heard any notable anecdotes about him, other than that he enjoys motorbikes and plonk. But I suspect he's a pretty funny bloke. He let rip last weekend against two of the defence ministers he served: Joel Fitzgibbon (''an auto-electrician in a suit'') and Stephen Smith (''had no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country''). In doing so, he unleashed a storm that still threatens Smith's career. Yet I'm convinced it's all part of an elaborate joke on Cantwell's part.

The giveaway is that he criticised Fitzgibbon for failing to understand the Defence white paper (Cantwell said he had to re-explain to the minister what ''had already been simplified to the point of banality''). Fancy that: a member of the defence establishment lecturing on the merits on plain English. The hilarity here is that Cantwell is talking about a report, co-written by a massive team over several years, whose meaning remains a mystery to the defence forces themselves. Just ask the three services, each of which has an entirely different understanding of the white paper's priorities.

But comprehension is an optional extra in Russell, and long has been. The military's pay manual (which, like everything else, is referred to unnecessarily by its acronym, PACMAN) has more than 2000 pages, and comes with an extra ''administration and technical explanation'' of more than 500 pages. No one really understands it, which no doubt explains the military's constant pay cock-ups.

Then there was last year's Black review of defence accountability. Among its advice was this beauty: ''Defence can improve its capability outcomes by progressively tightening the boundary conditions around the capability development process, improving top-down incentives for better capability delivery in an environment of capped budgets and extension of the current use of integrated project teams … across the end-to-end capability development process.'' And that gobbledygook was the summarised version. An organisation concerned about accountability would have hurled the report back at the consultant and refused to pay for it until it was at least vaguely intelligible. Instead, Defence is now busily ''implementing'' this nonsense. And because no one can grasp its meaning, no one will be able to accuse the department of failing to ''action'' it.

A senior public servant once described Russell to me as ''a decades-long meeting that hasn't ended, because they're still working on the agenda''...

Read on...

Fear & Loathing In The Public Service
Martin McKenzie-Murray
Feeding the Chooks
March 16, 2012

In my mind, Australia produces far too many mid-level managers—too few people capable of producing anything but petty fiefdoms built with bloody-mindedness and banality. They are not our future leaders, investors, novelists, architects because of idiocy and inanity; sloth and a diseased imagination. But they flourish because the public service naturally rewards pedantry and a waning sense of dignity.

What happens is a self-generating vortex of spin and bromides because the culture of the public service—petty territorialism and covering your arse—means the best gatekeepers are those with the least amount of imagination.

Experience—even an interest in—media and politics is unnecessary. It means that the professional touchstone is caution, not excellence, making it the perfect province for the inane. The mantra becomes “Don’t worry about the outcome, worry about the process” as so the word “process” comes to have an eerie, cultish quality because it’s the fig-leaf which covers the rank inadequacy of so many.

Watching Bob Carr’s first press conference something stirred in me which must have been similar to the pleasant shock of recognition Argos had of his old master and chum Odysseus upon his return. “Ahhh, who is this?” I thought. “A politician speaking with warmth and wit; clarity and comfort.” Laura Tingle tweeted from the presser “I’ve worked out what feels so weird… a minister (almost) who isn’t talking in spin speak”. Mr Carr will considerably raise the communicative standard.

And that’s the point: the bully pulpit is powerful—use it. The influence of a talented, passionate, articulate Minister trumps so much of the dross pumped out from the bowels of departments. And it’s cost effective, for chrissakes. Millions of dollars are spent on the salaries of communications people with no discernible talent, influence or professional worth. It’s a fact. More money is spent on people who literally have nothing to do.

The so-called “efficiency dividend” announced last year caused some consternation in Canberra—the cutting of 1.5% of spending on Federal jobs and services. In truth, the cut could be much larger—but the scalpel taken directly to the communications areas, rather than across the board. See, the cuts weren’t as discriminating as they should have been.

In Senate Estimates a few weeks back, the National Library, National Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive detailed the losses they’d experienced because of the cuts: reduced retrospective cataloguing, reduced services, reduced staff, reduced public events and an increase in charges for those borrowing between libraries. Similar attrition was felt by the other two organisations.

Let’s move—sensibly—towards surplus. Let’s not, in the memorable words of Doug Cameron, “fetishise” it. But if we want to rush towards surplus, increase the efficiency dividend. Halve the budget of communications teams or, better yet, don’t rely on them. You can do so with absolute assurance that the public good will not be damaged. What’s more, you might be preserving the opportunity for Australians to view the works of people who actually produce things.

Read the full thing...

I hope you enjoyed.

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