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.