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.