The erosion of Australia’s political integrity
Corporate vandalism need not be so

The deliberate corrosion of public service

ProbityCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Over a 40 year career in public service I saw many attempts to reform the organisations that provide it.

All such efforts were aimed in increasing efficiency and productivity and usually required major reorganisations, with changes made according to the ideas or prejudices of the people driving the supposed reforms.

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 produced worthwhile results.

Since the 1990’s 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 mistaken belief this will always be more efficient and cost effective.

This idea is completely false as a general proposition, although it may make sense in certain 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 solution.

The truth is that it does not matter 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 have the necessary leadership skills to motivate their workforce to do what needs to be done.

Furthermore, the structure of an organisation should reflect its functions.

There is 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 operates.

Attempting to impose an organisational structure 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.

They have been supplanted by a cadre of mostly young, inexperienced and politically ambitious ministerial advisers, usually supported by a range of external consultants because they lack the required specialist skills.

This problem has been greatly compounded by the trend to appoint people deemed 'politically reliable' to senior leadership roles.

This process means that those people who are not so reliable (that is, totally 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 Papua New Guinea or Australia or just about anywhere else, have forgotten the reasons why a politically neutral public service with jobs beyond political interference was developed in the first place.

This was done to overcome politicians’ ability to appoint cronies, to corruptly divert public funds to purposes for which they were not intended or to corruptly divert funds for their own benefit.

Achieving public confidence in the political system and the processes of government requires that politicians must largely remove themselves from the process of managing public money.

This should be left to expert public servants who can be comprehensively held to account for their decisions and actions.

Accountability standards were incredibly stringent to ensure public servants obeyed the laws established by parliament to govern their activities as well as complying with a policy framework formally endorsed by government.

This made the process of government somewhat cumbersome and slow but it was generally scrupulously honest and fair.

We in Australia have recently seen what happens when these rigorous processes are abandoned and ministers substitute their own judgement or biases to replace the demanding requirements applied to the people appointed to advise them.

A return to these scrupulous practices and processes is what is required in PNG and Australia.

Instead we have seen the imposition of ideas about public service organisation that are based upon current fashionable theories or ideology or, especially in PNG, practices and processes applied in an utterly different cultural and political context.

As Joe Ketan says in ‘40 years lost on useless reforms, the best people to do this in Papua New Guinea are those living and working in PNG right now who understand, but importantly have not been captured by, the political and cultural dynamics.

The problem is that those best qualified for this task seem unlikely to ever get a chance to do it.

This is so because those who preside over the current system want and need it to be dysfunctional, opaque, incompetent and corrupt because it enables them to exploit the system to enrich themselves and others.

Unless and until this changes, Papua New Guinea will continue to be a failing state.

And Australia will continue to sustain practices which allow political interference and aggrandisement and weaken government probity and accountability.

Comments

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Paul Oates

You can't devise an effective answer to a problem until you can define the problem.

Likewise, you can't manage a problem until you can measure it.

The concept of a public service was never and should never be run like a business. A business can only exist while ever it remains profitable. For example, no public transport enterprise can ever provide a 24 hour 7 day a week service. Yet that is what the public wants and mostly demands. If that service was to be run at a profit, or even at cost neutral, the cost of the tickets would be prohibitive to all except those who can and do afford to drive themselves.

Political leaders and ministers know this but choose to ignore reality and instead, promise to provide the service knowing full well it must be paid for by someone's taxes. That's the someone who ends up paying for the service they think someone else pays for.

Most of the public also know this in reality but tend to ignore the obvious by claiming 'the government'; will pay. We all know 'the government' doesn't have a money tree farm or does it?

The money tree farm or the process of printing money is how most governments like to kid their voters that in reality, the voters won't have to pay for what they want. The other means is to put off paying for the service by shelling out government loans and bond issues knowing full well eventually, someone, and you can bet its not the government politicians, will have to pay sometime.

That then leads to the old claim, 'Let the rich pay'.

The reality is: The rich never pay. They always find loopholes and smart tax lawyers to keep from paying taxes or hide their wealth in tax havens that most can only dream of. Look at Kerry Packer's statement about why he was able to do this legally.

The real issue is that the three pillars of modern democratic government have, over the last few decades, been intentionally blurred to allow political manipulation of the system to favour those who are in the know over the majority who aren't in a position to do anything about it.

Ultimately, this is how revolutions start. Anyone reading human history would know this is they were encouraged to read and to read about human history. Unfortunately, if you look at the modern school curriculum in Australia, you would see a plethora of woke subjects and self aggrandizement subjects but no real hard core examination of human history.

I understand that the PNG school curriculum is just as sparse when it comes to pre 1975 history.

Go figure.....

Philip Kai Morre

Any public reform will never work unless we the people in the workforce reform ourselves.

In recent times work ethics have not been followed. We see corruption everywhere where bureaucrats cooperate with politicians to steal.

The poor people in rural areas suffer with few basic services.

John Greenshields

"Achieving public confidence in the political system and the processes of government requires that politicians must largely remove themselves from the process of managing public money."

Agreed! But from The Australian, 29 September 2021, 'The corruption gravy train continues' by Ben Packham:

"PNG to seek $580M loan [from Australia] to fix ailing bottom line.

"PNG's mid-year financial update earlier in September revealed the government needed to raise $1.8bn in new external debt to meet a 2021 budget shortfall.

"Among the yet-to-be-paid budget items is $295M in direct 'service improvement program" [DSIP] grants to the country's 111 members of parliament.

"The funding scheme, put in place by former PNG PM Peter O'Neill, is supposed to inject government funds directly into the country's remote areas, where the majority of the population lives.

"Oversight of the scheme is notoriously poor, allowing the nation's MP's to use the money to shore up voter support ahead of the elections."

The Australian government should have none of this corrupt, undemocratic, unaccountable practice. It should fund projects directly, oversee them properly, and report results to the Australian taxpayers.

Let PNG fund DSIP itself, or better still, abolish it. It's a rort. 'Budget support' is an endless beggar's bowl, with little hope of repayment.

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