On electing leaders: whose wrong first, the people or the State?
The egocentric leader

Is the public service destroying Papua New Guinea?


WHEN I left Papua New Guinea in the 1970s and went to work for the South Australian government I was amazed at the incredibly complicated bureaucratic system that I had walked into.

Over the years it got worse, particularly after the rise of human resources divisions in each department. These divisions seemed to multiply overnight like an all-devouring virus programmed for one thing – to perpetuate itself.

Apart from a couple of mundane things, they served no useful purpose other than to complicate once simple procedures.

The shock I felt when I first started work in South Australia came about because I was used to the lean and austere system I came from in pre-independent Papua New Guinea.

Like runners in a race, the old Papua New Guinean system was lean and fit while the South Australian system was obese and decidedly unhealthy.

When I returned to Papua New Guinea in the 1990s, I discovered that the bureaucracies, both public and private, had adopted this self-same bloated system but with the added encumbrances of bad management, inefficiency and corruption.

Getting anything done, even the simplest thing, involving these bureaucracies was a mammoth and frustrating task. Whether getting a new biro from Santos to lodging land owner registrations with the Lands Department.

Reflecting on that now, it seems clear that this is one of the major problems with service delivery in Papua New Guinea, particularly in rural areas.

The complex systems also open up numerous opportunities for corruption; and perhaps that was one of the reasons they were designed the way they were.

Then again, I’m sceptical that there was any intelligent design involved in the first place, except perhaps for the purposes of establishing power bases.

You would expect that, in this digital age, bureaucratic processes could be streamlined to create efficiency but this has not happened either in Papua New Guinea, Australia or the rest of the world.

In the 1960s, economists and political scientists were predicting that technology would largely do away with labour intensive work so that people would have more leisure time and a better work-to-life balance.

This never happened. In the interests of ever increasing production and profit, people found themselves working longer hours just to keep up and compete.

Instead of doing a 10 hour job in five hours and having the other five hours off for leisure, workers found themselves working 10 or 15 hours producing five times as much output but under pressure to do even more.

Running a lean and technologically-assisted bureaucracy has many attractions. It not only makes service delivery more efficient but it engenders a responsibility and pride in its operators – success breeds success.

In pre-independent Papua New Guinea we did a lot with very few resources but we couldn’t have done that without the cooperation of the people and their leaders.

The Okuk Highway was built by hand with shovels and picks by a proud people who prided themselves on outdoing their tribal neighbours. The picks and shovels were bought from the proceeds of collecting war time wreckage and selling it to scrap metal dealers.

The diversity of the people was a distinct advantage in those days. In the drive for development tribal groups excelled at building schools and hospitals in their areas for next to nothing but with freely provided blood sweat and tears. The rush to develop also left little time for tribal fighting.

Bureaucrats have brought down mighty civilisations in the past. Rome and the various dynasties in China are clear examples.

I suspect that it will be the bureaucracy, with its inherent inefficiencies and corruption that brings down Papua New Guinea.

As Michael Dom has pointed out, Papua New Guinea’s diversity can be harnessed for the greater good. Tribalism does not have to be a negative factor but can be a positive one for change.

This is no more apparent than in the electoral system. If electorates reflected tribal groupings, just like the kiaps designed local level government wards, a sense of pride would develop and people would soon realise that if they wanted to get ahead electing greedy and stupid political leaders was a bad idea.

In pre-independent Papua New Guinea, the central administration in Port Moresby generally left the districts (upon which the present provinces are based) to their own devices and district headquarters generally left the sub-districts to their own devices.

Port Moresby and the district headquarters were simply the people who enabled the sub-districts to get on with it.

In the 1970s, the Western Highlands was the star performer. It went ahead in leaps and bounds and left the more moribund districts gasping in its wake.

The colonial administration also worked to help private enterprise develop but it never got involved in individual companies or projects itself.

It was only at the local level where cooperative businesses were set up by local people that the kiaps, didimen and others helped. It was received wisdom that government should not get involved in private enterprise. This is wisdom that Peter O’Neill seems to be ignoring.

There is a hint of this old style administration now appearing in Gary Juffa’s Oro Province.

As Martyn Namorong has pointed out, it will be ordinary people who save Papua New Guinea, not the bloated government in Port Moresby.

All those people need now is the oxygen and the room to exert themselves. A sensible government would be working towards providing these things.


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Paul Oates

Thanks Phil. That aspect illustrates a very good point indeed. This is a classic case of smoke and mirrors that is being used to whip up public interest while the real issues of tax reform, budget deficits, aging population and the inability to pay for the lifestyle we have become accustomed to are conveniently swept under the carpet behind our backs.

What will altering the minuscule, protocol link with our shared history improve the lot of the average Australian one iota?

The claimed successive reorganizations have been used to justify the changes to the PNG and Australian Public Services without any demonstrable increase in efficiency or operation. Often the reverse has been the case.

There are none so blind as those who will not see. Many are blinded by the public fireworks displays that are really being paid for out of their own pockets. Bread and circuses haven't changed in 2,000 years.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Small point Paul.

The GG is appointed by the queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. The minimalist position being taken by Fitzgerald is to simply knock out the queen bit. Bingo! Nothing really changes and Oz becomes a republic!

Paul Oates

Those who think change for change sake alone is good are like those who rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.

You only have to look at the current initiative to make Australia a republic. We already have an Australian as head of state. That's the Governor General.

No one has yet outlined what system we will have after there might be a change and how will it be any better than what we now have?

You only have to look at the effect all those changes have made to the public service to see it's demonstrably no better in efficiency and is arguably worse in many ways.

When those who advocate change are then made to justify why there should be change and that it will be a positive move will mostly then fold up and pack their bags.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Constant reorganisations and renaming of positions are a classic sign of an organisation in crisis Raymond.

Like Chris, while I was in the South Australian public service I sat through countless reorganisations. A great deal of the time of the senior management was taken up designing organisational charts.

For some reason this made the managers happy and they walked away thinking they had solved all their problems but in reality leaving a scene of chaos behind them.

Raymond Sigimet

It gets more confusing. The public service have now taken on new titles for its sectional heads, for example the District Administrators are now called Chief Executive Officers (District Development Authority) while Provincial Education Advisors are now called Executive Officers (Provincial Education Division). The public service sounds more like a corporate organisation.

Phil Fitzpatrick

As you suggest Chris, there is a very blurred line between politicians and public servants.

Many of the senior public servants in Papua New Guinea are, to all intents and purposes, part of the political establishment. Witness the musical chairs in the RPNGC and the Defence Force of recent years.

I can understand an incoming government wishing to rid the public service of the previous government's appointments. If they don't do that they generally find themselves with an obstructionist crew spiking the wheels of anything they want to do. You can see it happening here in the Abbott/Turnbull changeover.

Then what happens is that the new crop of senior public servants begin cleaning out any subordinates who might create problems.

All this goes on from the mid-management level upwards. The drones underneath just have to try and get on with their job as best they can. This is where the core of most honest public servants live I think.

Political appointments reach right across the board. Even at the district level the managers are political appointments aligned with the local member. They scratch each other's backs.

I can't see that there is any quick solution to the problem. It is a matter of changing a whole culture and that will take a long time.

This is precisely what happened in the bureaucracies of old. The problem became too great and the dynasty or empire crashed.

Chris Overland

I worked in the SA Public Service for 32 years. My experience mirrors Phil's to a large degree.

The short chain of command and ability to take rapid, independent action that was a feature of the Department of District Administration was spectacularly absent in the SA Public Service, which in the early 1970's valued process, procedures and pecking order above all else.

Fast forward 30 years and while much had changed for the better, the advent of a Senior Executive Service employed on a contractual basis meant that it was much harder to give "frank and fearless" advice.

It was possible to do so with the better Ministers, but could be risky with the more stupid and doctrinaire variety, of whom there are always a few.

A feature of the typical Minister's office now is the plethora of political appointees who serve as policy advisers. These people can greatly influence the policy development process even though they may lack the depth of knowledge in a given policy area required to do this well.

The smartest and most astute of these people treat their jobs as a major learning experience and carefully cultivate the public service experts in their designated policy area. Some will subsequently go into Parliament and, more often than not, do pretty well.

The less able political appointees tend to be slaves to party ideology and/ or their Minister. They do not add much value to the decision making process and can, in fact, become a major problem because it takes so much time to either convince them to support a given policy position or to simply outflank them.

In a PNG context, where Ministers can often be "oncer's", whose main interest is deriving the maximum personal benefit from their role, I would guess that the hapless public servants who serve them can really find it hard to do their jobs well, if at all.

This problem cannot be solved by reorganising the public service structure or procedures. I have endured countless such reorganisations and, without exception, they have failed to achieve their main goals. Basically, culture trumps structure every time.

So it is the underlying culture within the PNG political system that has to change first and foremost. Once this happens the public service culture will begin to change to reflect the new reality.

Gary Juffa and others are now beginning to model new attitudes and behaviours that are the beginnings of this cultural change. If their approach can be progressively rolled out across the country then much will change for the better.

This will not happen fast but, with persistence, it will happen. The crucial question is whether Gary and those of like mind can recruit enough support to stay in power long enough to effect meaningful change.

This is where ordinary Papua New Guineans need to be part of the change process themselves. All they have to do is vote for those like Gary who are willing and able to make a difference.

It is truly both that simple and that hard.

Warren Dutton | Facebook

Paul Barker, you are absolutely right. It was the politicisation of the Public Service, together with politically driven over-rapid localisation, which destroyed the developing PNG Public Service, which was serving our country very well for the first decade after Independence.

Following Australia's lead in removing tenure from Departmental Heads had a much more disastrous effect in PNG than it had in Australia.

Michael Dom

We'll need a crisis of epic proportions so that we have the chance to make changes to the way things are run in government.

Strangely enough Peter O'Neill may be leading us there - K25 billion debt and counting.

Paul Barker | Facebook

Perhaps the surprising thing is the number of public servants trying to do the right thing, despite so many frustrations, from lack of working equipment/materials, poor access and living conditions.

The politicians generally blame public servants for poor public services, but it was largely the politicians that undermined a professional public service through their cronyism, and then it just ricocheted through the system. It will take major commitment to public service to what was envisaged in the Constitution.

It would require suitable incentives and penalties and a much clearer demarcation of roles between politicians and politicians.

Capable managers are rare and need careful selection and nurturing, not to be simply elbowed about by some politician, which by contrast are common as muck..although admittedly a good politician that listens and has integrity is also rare and worth nurturing.

Mathias Kin

Too big, too cumbersome. Dom is right. We live in it, feel it, see it and even sometime take part in it. But refuse to do anything about it. So we are just as guilty as these perpetrators.

What needs to be done is really strong leadership at the national, provincial and local levels. I know somebody is going to throw some mud now but let me finish.

My mate Gary Juffa is making waves and doing great in Oro and it's having rippling effects across PNG. Now leaders and other PNGians are saying, "We can do this too".

All our friends here must realise is that the majority PNGians are sick and tired of the way things are in this country.

I believe there are a lot more good people here than there are bad people. I am sure some day sooner, things will get better. We truly need good leadership in the mould of Gary Juffa and I have named a few in my earlier comments. This country is not doomed yet.

Michael Dom

I can understand the outrage at the theft, extortion and siphoning of money out of the public purse.

But let's face reality we all see it happening and yet do very little about it.

It's not a stranger who comes around to your house in a government vehicle drunk as a pig, with beer bottles falling all over the place and night-girls in the back seat.

It's not a stranger who tells you that he/she has just got their hands on some money that 'no one will find out about'.

It's not a stranger who you observe enjoying themselves with the perks and privileges of royalty at the local hotels.

None of those thieves are strangers to us.

One of us knows them.

Joe Herman is right when he says that we need to make it personal - name the bastards when you know exactly who they are or else continue to put up with it.

Unfortunately for us putting up with our wantoks, tambus, kandre's et al. is part our our Melanesian culture.

What can we do about it?

John K Kamasua

And to add to Sil's comments...mostly getting away with them!

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

The public servants stole more than the politicians. It's the sum total of public servants' incompetence, obsession to stealing and squandering public funds that is bringing this country to its knees.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Probably both Paul.

Paul Oates

Phil, you have just asked the classic question. What comes first? The chicken or the egg.

Is it the bureaucracy that will bring PNG down or the lack of expertise in managing the bureaucracy? Could it be the style of managing rather than the bureaucracy itself?

Your reflection on how the public service in Australia (and elsewhere) has become so bloated that it is impossible to achieve any real improvement in management is in line with my experience.

The continuous tidal waves of social engineering that were supposed to make a better and fairer PS system. In reality this has virtually strangled what it was claimed it was setting out to do. Every new idea and concept needed a new position at each level of the management chain to bring it into fruition (however beneficial the idea), but at the same time, simultaneously used up scarce funding and created another essential process to complete and more red tape to comply with or stumble through.

Yesteryear's old stupidity of mere seniority to gain promotion was briefly overtaken by merit that was then in turn regrettably overtaken by political expediency and imposed social engineering. Business principles were claimed to be essential to manage the public service when all they did was to allow politicians to directly appoint those who would do what their political masters wanted without any knowledge of how and why the public service isn't supposed to be a business (that can and often does be subject to 'incentives'), but a 'public service'. Public servants shouldn't be paid anything but their salary.

In PNG where clan and tribal loyalties are traditionally so important, the Kiap system was relatively successful since it was perceived as outside tribal manipulation and subject to local political intrigue. That was the reason it was summarily disposed of as soon as it could be after Independence.

When the public service becomes beholden to their political masters or imposed systemic manipulation there is an obvious and clear erosion of independence and a breakdown in the essential division of powers.

So is it the erosion of the system or the failure of leadership and management expertise to manage the system?

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