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11 responses to “The public service and public values”

  1. Mick Peel

    In terms of popular perceptions of the public service and the current politics of ‘bashing’ public servants, it always astounds me that we, as a society, haven’t moved past the ‘public choice theory’ model of Buchanan et al from the 1960s. Despite the simplistic appeal to the unthinking, over 30 years of evidence does not support the doctrine’s thesis.

  2. Chris

    I think one mistake people make when discussing the public service is treating it as one homogeneous organisation. In reality there’s huge differences between different parts and like any huge organisations there’s good bits and bad bits. There are areas where people work extremely hard and others where newcomers get warned not to work too hard because they’ll make everyone else look bad 🙂

  3. Duncan

    “a decline in the ratio of public servants per capita in contrast to claims of public service ‘bloating’”.

    Only if taken from bloated 1991 days.. if you take if from ~1999, things have been fairly constant (which is ok).

    Note pp23, which I think gets people’s backs up; there has been a huge increase in the higher pay grades/SES positions and a drop in the lower grade (presumably front-of-office type role).

  4. billie

    “a decline in the ratio of public servants per capita in contrast to claims of public service ‘bloating’”.

    The work still needs to get done so probably the public service has to hire expensive consultants and contractors rather than train up junior staff in-house, whom Ross Gittins has argued provide more independent advice than a consultant with their eye on their next contract

  5. Chris

    billie @ 4 – there’s definitely been a move to outsourcing in the federal public service. Don’t know whether there’s been a net drop or not though.

    One thing which annoys me about politicians is how they have started to hide behind advice they’re given by the public service. Saying they’re doing something because that’s the advice they’ve been given rather than taking responsibility for the decision themselves. If all they’re going to do is follow advice then why do we need them in the loop anyway?

  6. John D

    The media and oppositions are responsible for many of the things that are wrong with the public service.
    Any mistake and there are cries for the minister’s head. So there are endless, irritating procedures to avoid embarrassing mistakes and make people “accountable.”
    Ministers who can’t answer ridiculous questions re detail are dismissed as “incompetent”. So there is endless paperwork to ensure trivial questions to be answered.
    Achievements are belittled. So a government that achieves a lot and makes a few mistakes (like the Whitlam government) is poor government while governments that sit on their hands and are too timid are tolerated.

  7. wilful

    There are areas where … newcomers get warned not to work too hard because they’ll make everyone else look bad

    Got evidence?

    Having worked in both public and private sectors myself, and with several friends and family with similar experience, there is a lot less difference between the sectors than is sometimes stated. On the coalface, the incompetence and laziness that I get reports from friends in the finance sector and other places are just as bad or worse as anything I’ve ever seen in the PS. I’ve had that confirmed many times by people with first-hand experience.

    The key differences are easily explained, by the fact that public sector is a large organisation, so has obvious and necessary bureaucratic strictures, just like any large company (we’re not comparing to a small business here), and the “chairman of the Board”, the Minister, is not rewarded for risky behaviours and may or may not be varyingly competent.

    The main issue seems to be appetite for risk, which gets translated into autonomy. Public servants get frustrated by not being able to be push an idea without too many people being able to say no. In the private sector there’s a bit more accountability to the individual. But the system doesn’t reward public sector innovation, not at all. Also, and it is the public’s money, so a degree of conservatism is warranted.

    I know that Dilbert and the Office and the IT crowd (a couple of examples) are parodies, but they’re set in the private sector.

    Oh, something that makes me swear a lot, is the baldfaced hypocrisy of the Herald Sun editorial line (thankfully absent from the Oz), whenever a dollar is spent, screaming about “fat cat” bureaucrats (an atrocious cliché). Apparently training isn’t ever needed, and conferences are always a waste of time, and people who work 60 hours a week with responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars shouldn’t have a salary packaged car. I’d love to do a compare and contrast on the News Ltd expense accounts.

    The Secretary of any decent department would easily slot into the CEO role of a big company. Some of the most talented individuals in Australia are senior public servants.

  8. wilful

    Duncan @3, “there has been a huge increase in the higher pay grades/SES positions and a drop in the lower grade (presumably front-of-office type role).”

    Yep. Every time we have a restructure, we reduce the ratio of officers to executives. It’s remarkable, like a law of nature or something. And incompetent or surplus executives? Unsackable, despite supposedly being on “flexible contracts”.

  9. akn

    The assumption that the public service in any way represents public values in NSW is at least highly highly questionable or highly delusional. Let’s just remind ourselves of some of the key NSW public service institutions whose commitment to public values have contributed to the collapse of Sydney: the RTA, whose staff get really upset when the public refers to it as the Roads and Traffic Authority because it is called the Road and Transport Authority but, for anyone driving a car in Sydney, who would have guessed? Then there’s the SRA whose corruption is legendary and which now gets study tours in governance from Afghanistan. The NPWS is in a league of its own not just for corruption and incompetence but for the sheer casual cruelty with which it treats anyone actually attempting to do anything other than keep an immaculate bureaucratic record of species decline and superannuation increase. NSW has a permanent government regardless of who is elected and it is the public service whose entrenched self interest is predicated on loathing of the ‘public’ and has been since the days of the Rum Corps. Quite how it is that child protection services in NSW have managed to remove more Aboriginal children after a judicial inquiry into its activities than were removed in the course of the Stolen Generations episode requires a study in institutional history more informed by knowledge of the individual psychopathology of racism than it is by orthodox history. Public service and public values? Tell you what, take the public commitment of service of any given NSW public agency, reverse the the intentions of such a statement and then you’ll understand the reality in NSW.

  10. Chris

    wilful @ 7 – not sure what sort of evidence you’re looking for, but I have friends that it has happened to. But as I mentioned like any huge organisation there’s good parts and bad parts. You can’t make broad generalisations about the public service – and that goes for the good aspects as well as the bad aspects .

    Having worked in both public and private sectors myself, and with several friends and family with similar experience, there is a lot less difference between the sectors than is sometimes stated.

    I think if you compared very large private organisations with the public service you’d find a lot of similarities with both the problems they have as well as their strengths. Though security of tenure is one significant factor for any culture differences. My father was a public servant and had lots of stories of how managers would attempt to foist poorly performing workers onto other managers by giving them great references because it was too hard to fire them.

    Oh, something that makes me swear a lot, is the baldfaced hypocrisy of the Herald Sun editorial line (thankfully absent from the Oz), whenever a dollar is spent, screaming about “fat cat” bureaucrats (an atrocious cliché).

    There’s a lot of stupid red tape for what looks like mostly PR reasons. Like even junior public servants not being allowed to extend overseas work trips with personal holidays. So I’ve known people to fly back from overseas work trips and then get straight back on a plane to where they just came from for a personal holiday.

  11. John Gardner

    Wilful @ 7

    And another thing. why is it so terrible if public servants have a beer or two at public expense from time to time whereas employees of private companies have great celebrations fairly regularly and no one complains. i wonder what their shareholders think; did they get a vote at the AGM, or elsewhere, to approve such expenditure?