Gordon Campbell on public service contracting, and the veto   12 Apr 2012

Gordon Campbell

It is always dangerous to base a story on personal experience… So this is being offered mainly out of curiosity, to see whether anyone out there has had coalface experience of what this anecdote is about. Here goes.

While seeking an interview for a story with a government department last week, I suggested (to the media officer setting it up) the names of four managers who had publicly commented on aspects of the issue over the past two years, as possible candidates for the interview. No dice. None of them, I was told, were still working for the department. Later on, the interview over, I sought extra data… and the media officer told me she’d get it to me on the Tuesday after Easter. Except by then (only one and a half working days after the interview) her automated out-of-office reply message reported that she too, had gone from the department.

Disconcerting, but I eventually got the data. Yet the same story also required stats from another department. Unfortunately in the time between this department’s media staff receiving and actioning my request they’d been re-structured, the researcher was gone, and the request had to be re-started afresh.

The issue I’m talking about here is not so much job losses in the public service – which are a serious and separate issue – but something more basic. Namely, the way that the short term contracts and stop/start processes now afflicting the public sector are affecting its performance, and what used to be quaintly called its morale.

This is not the same thing, either, as the loss of in-house experience and institutional memory, or the erosion of technical expertise – serious though those trends are, as the Pike River inquiry has been making clear. I’m talking about a malaise where the job security sufficient to see schemes of even one year’s duration through to completion has become somewhat rare and problematic. Staff are being churned at a rate that seems to defy any prospect of heightened efficiency. In several departments there are stories – again anecdotal, just like mine – of new staff being brought in on ridiculously short contracts of say, two months duration, and then let go again. Imagine trying to run anything where the key staff come in cold, and are then let go again in eight weeks time just as the next recruit (if you’re lucky) is ushered in the door for their induction course and briefing session.

I have no idea of how to quantify the extent – much less the opportunity cost – of this phenomenon, but it seems widespread. Almost everyone I know currently working in the public service seems able to recount examples. In the process, the penchant for getting rid of permanent staff and bringing in short-term contractors is not only costing huge amounts in inflated consultancy costs – as Keith Ng has gone a long way to quantifying in this must –read column – it is simply making the public service all but unmanageable. In some cases, managers barely get to know their key staff before their contracts run out, and they are replaced by newbies, or are not replaced at all, pending the next review of funding and/or consideration of the next potential departmental merger.

On the side, the churn in public service staff and independent contractors must be making a mockery of the unemployment figures in Wellington and elsewhere, as people hover between bursts of short term employment. The only people making hay out of this are the “change managers” brought in at huge cost (nearly $10 million so far and counting in the case of MFAT’s bungled reforms) and the recruitment agencies. For a fee, the agencies do the screening of this constantly churning pool of candidates, with some agencies collecting a bonus for any of the people they refer who last as much as six months in the same job.

We are watching the demolition of the public service, at the behest of people ideologically opposed to any notion of service to the public being provided by central government. (These people are takers, not providers.) So….has anyone out there had experience of the impact of the short term contract syndrome?

***

The Veto Against Children

Private members bills occupy a unique place in our constitutional arrangements. In a one chamber system notably lacking in checks and balances, they enable individual MPs to originate Bills outside of the party machinery, and then seek to get the support of the majority within Parliament to get them passed.

Labour MP Sue Moroney was well on the way to doing just that – with every indication that she’d get a parliamentary majority for her Bill to extend paid parental leave from the current 14 weeks to 26 weeks, over time. This proposal was to be phased in gradually – and was not due to be implemented in full until after the country’s books are expected to be back in surplus.

No such luck. Before it could be given its first reading in the House – much less before it is sent to select committee where its merits and affordability could be objectively assessed – National has announced it will veto the Bill at its third reading, should it get that far. The government has simply decided to try and pre-empt Parliamentary debate by rendering it futile – and as Finance Minister Bill English made clear on RNZ this morning, Parliament can expect that any legislative measure that involves extra costs will meet the same fate, unless it entails spending on issues and/or cronies that the government deems worthy of support.

The veto exists for a purpose. It is meant to be a measure of last resort – and was never intended to be deployed to pre-empt and skew a public debate and parliamentary vote that looks like being embarrassing for the government.

This particular use of the veto is about political management, not financial management. Yes, the same government that found $1.8 billion to bail out investors and speculators in South Canterbury Finance has shown itself willing to intimidate Parliament from the outset in its attempts to debate, analyse and vote on a measure that involves spending a relatively paltry $150 million (by year four) to assist families, and to give children a better start in life.

 

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