40 years lost on useless reforms
04 October 2021
| My Land, My Country
KUK - Public sector reform is an alien concept to the people of Papua New Guinea.
The idea has been brought into countries like PNG by fly-by-night consultants, whose knowledge seems based almost exclusively on trendy paperbacks purchased at airport bookshops on their way to their new jobs in Third World capitals.
PNG has been one of the testing grounds for weird ideas on governance, development, education and service delivery.
The reforms have been pushed by international organisations whose consultants often lacked knowledge of local conditions with the inevitable outcome that reforms fell short of achieving their objectives mainly because they were not needed in the first place.
PNG has lost 40 years of development opportunity because of poor advice from foreign consultants.
It is embarrassing that the best and brightest in this country have not been consulted on these reforms.
The best analysis of public sector reform has been provided by Papua New Guinean academics and public servants, but our government has consistently ignored the evidence.
The failed outcome based education (OBE) system set back PNG 20 years. This, together with the Tuition Fee Free policy, is responsible for the poor standard of education.
The failed provincial government and local-level government system has also set PNG back many years – this time back to the stone age.
The transport infrastructure remains collapsed. The plantation economy was killed by the high cost of security and by mismanagement. Extension services were withdrawn from rural agriculture.
Funding for core areas of health, education, agriculture and village courts was cut and diverted to electoral purposes with MPs as fund managers.
That is what happens when structural changes are brought about without understanding the purpose of public sector reform.
PNG is now ranked among the lowest country in terms of the human development indicators, despite increases in life expectancy and literacy rates since 1990.
We cannot afford to have people with no real life experience in parliament, running government departments and state enterprises, or working for the government as consultants.
Similarly, we must never allow corrupt people in these places. We have suffered enough at the hands of incompetent and corrupt leaders.
Let’s work together to salvage what is left of our country for our children.
Dr Joseph Ketan lives at Kuk near Mount Hagen and is an independent researcher and sociopolitical commentator with a background in anthropology, political science and governance. He has held academic posts at the Institute of PNG Studies, the National Research Institute and the University of Papua New Guinea. You can follow him on Facebook
One can't only blame foreign or local consultants. Much of the blame rests with politicians and government staffers.
Take the National Land Development Task Force [NLDTF] which authored a report in 2006, produced by the National Research Institute.
These people had real expertise of 40 years in land administration in PNG (see link below).
The report made 47 recommendations for improvement of land administration, almost none of which have been implemented.
Instead we have a paper subdivision at Gerehu for 1,745 blocks with pegs only, and no infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in a separate heartless act, 1,300 squatters were evicted from land in Port Moresby, with nowhere to go except more squatting.
The situation is scandalous, inept and corrupt, and seemingly beyond the power of government to solve.
Posted by: John Greenshields | 06 October 2021 at 09:50 AM
Over a 40 year career in public service I saw many attempts to 'reform' public service organisations.
All such efforts were aimed in increasing 'efficiency' and 'productivity'. They usually required major reorganisations, with various departments or functions being aggregated or disaggregated according to the ideas or prejudices of the people driving the supposed 'reform' process.
Almost none of these reforms did much good. I can think of less than a handful of public sector modernisation efforts during the 1970's and 80's that really produced worthwhile results.
Since around 1990 most public sector reforms have been driven by ideology, notably the mania for outsourcing public sector services and functions to the private sector in the utterly mistaken belief that it is always more efficient and cost effective to do so.
This idea is completely false as a general proposition, although it may make sense in certain very select circumstances where the private sector has a huge operational advantage.
Mostly the track record shows that such change results in higher costs and poorer service quality. Despite this, the ideologues of neoliberalism persist in believing that privatisation is a universal panacea.
The truth is that what matters is not whether an organisation is privately or publicly owned, but whether those who run it know what they need to do, have the necessary resources to do it and, importantly, have the necessary leadership skills to motivate their workforce to do what needs to be done.
Also, the structure of an organisation should reflect its functions. There is usually more than one way to do this but what is the most efficient way is frequently heavily influenced by the political, financial, geographic or cultural context within which the organisation must operate.
Thus, attempting to impose an organisational structure that was devised to work in a totally different context is invariably doomed to failure.
Perhaps the most catastrophic reform failure of the last 20 years or so has been the progressive replacement of highly experienced public servants as the primary drivers of policy development with a cadre of mostly young, inexperienced and politically ambitious 'ministerial advisers', usually supported by a range of external consultants.
This problem has been greatly compounded by the tendency to only appoint people to senior leadership roles who are deemed 'politically reliable'.
This process means that those people who are not so reliable (i.e. automatically compliant) but who may be the most innovative and energetic policy thinkers, are never appointed to positions of influence.
Our political leaders, be they in PNG or Australia or just about anywhere else, have forgotten the reasons why a politically neutral and 'permanent' public service was developed in the first place.
This was done specifically to overcome the tendency of politicians to want to corruptly divert public funds to their cronies or to purposes for which they were not intended or just to line their own pockets.
The price of achieving public confidence in the political system and processes of government was that politicians had to largely remove themselves from the process of actually managing public money and leave this to the expert public servants.
In turn, the latter were subject to incredibly stringent accountability standards to ensure that they obeyed the laws established by the parliament to govern their activities as well as complying with the policy framework formally endorsed by government.
This made the process of government somewhat cumbersome and slow but it also was generally scrupulously honest and fair. We in Australia have recently seen what happens when this process is abandoned and Ministers substitute their individual judgement for that of the bodies appointed to advise them.
A return to these basic ideas and processes is probably what is required in PNG (and Australia too), not the imposition of ideas about the organisation of the public service based upon either the current fashionable theories or ideology or something done in an utterly different cultural or political context.
As Joe Ketan says, the best people to do this are those living and working in PNG right now. The problem is that those best qualified for this task seem unlikely to ever get a chance to do it.
This is the case because those who preside over the current system want and need it to be dysfunctional, opaque, incompetent and corrupt because this allows them to exploit it to enrich themselves and others.
Unless and until this changes, PNG will continue to be a failing state.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 04 October 2021 at 09:26 PM
Interesting concept to blame all failures of government in PNG on 'consultants'.
Perhaps a new paperback expounding the theory for airport book kiosks, when they open again. Make sure it is published in Mandarin for the new breed of consultants.
When did PNG descend into unbridled nepotism and corruption? The fact is that the descent started well before consultants arrived on the scene as a well meaning but futile attempt to halt the descent, principally led by Australia.
Most Australian consultants that I worked with were well qualified and experienced in their profession but lacked the on ground PNG exposure to understand the social mores at play. The same can be said for AusAID (DFAT) staff.
This, coupled with PNG government departments greedy for fungible funding, made true sustainable development or positive change almost impossible. In a sense doomed to failure before they began.
However convenient for some as it may be, Canberra cannot be blamed for all the issues of PNG. Perhaps we will see how China fares with assisting PNG in development. A different approach certainly.
Posted by: Dr John Christie | 04 October 2021 at 08:08 PM
You can also see this consultancy mentality increasingly happening in Australia.
Tricky questions now seem to automatically be referred to all manner of committees and enquiries by government and that is often as far as they go.
Getting a report from a committee or consultant that can be ignored seems to be regarded as a solution of some sort, just as it is in PNG.
If you have a problem that you don't want to deal with handball it on to a consultant and hope that by the time they provide a report everyone will have forgotten about the original issue.
If that doesn't work then create a diversion.
Ask Scotty, he knows how it works.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 04 October 2021 at 03:45 PM
Joe, you have applied a 'pretty broad brush' here (I picked that up from an organisation improvement text in an airport bookshop.) However, I believe you are quite correct.
I don’t decry the notion that public sector reform is necessary. A cursory look at the development indicators tells you something is badly amiss.
So why, given the huge effort and allocation of treasure over the past forty odd years have public sector reforms failed so miserably to affect sustainable change.
In my estimation, with a few exceptions, interventions have failed to 'drill down' with the necessary 'granularity' and connected adequately 'where the rubber meets the road' to people at community level. (Joe I'm hoping someone from DFAT will read this.)
That is to say (and in spite of the best buzz words) the output has not been meaningful to about ninety percent of the people it was supposed to impact.
I would suggest the starting point should be an understanding of how a proposed reform of public service endeavour would be received at the level of the end user and that implies culturally.
For example, if trust is not normally extended to people who come from outside a given population area, then common sense might suggest it is folly to establish systems where control is vested in public servants whose authority local people do not and will not recognise.
While it may appear to a Canberra based consultant, who is an "expert" (never met and expert on PNG from Canberra) on public sector reform, that a system is reasonably well resourced and staffed, in practice a few hours spent listening to communities in tokples, is likely to reveal just how much and why they detest the system and the individuals whose job is to assist them.
The cry is nearly always for greater respect, consultation and participation in decision making at community level where decisions that affect them are respected.
When I peruse positions advertised with DFAT funding I invariably perceive an cavernous disconnect between the cultural imperatives that drive community life (always was and always will be) and the goals set out in the terms of reference for the advertised task.
I agree with you Joe, this nonsense has been going on for
40 plus years.
There is an old adage. If you suffer a headache from beating your head against a brick wall, it might be sensible to stop and re-evaluate what you are doing.
Far too many public sector reforms are a continuation of beating one’s head against the proverbial brick wall while expecting to get a different result.
In the absence of a culturally nuanced approach, they amount to total nonsense.
I would suggest that, until and unless as much effort that has historically been applied to 'one way street head banging models' (couldn't resist it), is allocated to interventions that recognise the primacy of community viewpoint and seeks their participation in the delivery of services, do not - absolutely do not expect better outcomes.
Posted by: Stephen Charteris | 04 October 2021 at 01:45 PM
Carpetbaggers... preying on the gullible.
Posted by: Peter Rhodes | 04 October 2021 at 11:24 AM
A most insightful and pertinent article Joe.
I've got friends and relatives in the business world who are avid readers of all the latest self-help books available at airports and bookshops.
The internet has made their existence even more prolific. They are real money spinners but seldom impart anything new or relevant - and as you suggest that's something that could be said of consultants too.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 04 October 2021 at 10:01 AM