CAIRNS – In ‘Forty Years Lost’, Dr Joe Ketan has applied a pretty broad brush (a term I picked up from an organisation improvement text in an airport bookshop). However, I believe he quite correct.
I certainly don’t decry the notion that public sector reform is necessary. A cursory look at Papua New Guinea’s development indicators tells you something is badly amiss.
So why, given the huge effort and allocation of treasure over the past forty-odd years, has public sector reform failed so miserably in producing sustainable change.
In my estimation, with a few exceptions, outside interventions have failed to 'drill down' with the necessary 'granularity' and have not connected 'where the rubber meets the road' for people at the community level.
(See following article for a consulting glossary or contact someone from DFAT for an explanation.)
That is to say (and despite of the best buzz words) the output of these outside development aid interventions has not been meaningful for the vast bulk of the people it was supposed to impact.
I would suggest the starting point for effective public service reform should be a shared understanding of how proposed changes will be received at the level of the end user - which implies a thorough cultural understanding.
For example, if trust is not normally extended to people who come from outside a particular area, then it is folly to establish systems where control is vested in public servants whose authority local people do not and will not recognise.
It may appear to a Canberra-based consultant who is an ‘expert’ on public sector reform that a system in PNG is reasonably well resourced and staffed.
However, in practice, even just a few hours spent listening to communities discussing an issue in tokples is likely to reveal just how much and why they detest the system and the individuals whose job is to assist them.
In my experience, the cry is nearly always for greater respect, consultation and participation for decision-making at community level.
This is an authentic plea because it is if pitched at this level, decisions can be better understood and respected.
When I peruse positions advertised that are funded by Australia’s foreign affairs department (DFAT), I invariably perceive a cavernous disconnect between the cultural imperatives that drive community life and the goals set out in the terms of reference of the advertised task.
I agree with Joe Ketan that this nonsense has been going on for 40-plus years.
There is an adage that suggests if your head aches from being beaten against a stone wall, it is sensible to stop and evaluate what you are doing.
Far too many public sector reforms are a continuation of beating one’s head against the proverbial wall while expecting to get a different result.
In the absence of a culturally nuanced approach, such reforms have never worked and they will never work.
The effort historically applied to head banging needs to be allocated to appropriately targeted interventions that recognise the primacy of the community viewpoint and seeks community participation in the delivery of services.
If this is not done, consultants tasked with public sector reform will never obtain better outcomes.