Why be a public servant?

Written By: - Date published: 1:16 pm, July 20th, 2017 - 28 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, accountability, Deep stuff, national, national/act government, Politics, Privatisation, same old national, treasury, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

Why be a public servant? Why in particular work in a government department in Wellington?

Twenty years ago there was still a mythology that such office jobs were cushy numbers with great perks. Ten years ago some could still say they had a calling to actually make a difference through work beyond their own self interest. Maybe a few still start off like that.

Now, two big instances pull back the curtain on what it’s really like, and what it means for government.

First off, the State Services Commission has confirmed that three staff at the Ministry of Transport who sought to be whistle-blowers on the massive and long term fraud there, were vindictively restructured out.

Any large government department has an atmosphere of controlled perpetual repression, because it is ruled over by a Minister whose personality is usually a mixture of naïve ideas, bullying, fear of the Prime Minister, fear of Parliament and the media, and everything else you see on House of Cards. It really is like that. So seeking to expose active and long term corruption by your superior is something really only those with no mortgage can undertake without real fear. Gordon Campbell noted in March this year that “If whistle blowers don’t feel protected if and when they relay their concerns to senior staff – let alone if they later feel impelled to go public to the media – then the formal protections on paper are worthless”.

The State Services Commission themselves understand how important the whistle-blowing function is to our public service:

Winston Peters was quite right: the then-Chief Executive of the Ministry of Transport, who is now the Auditor General, should leave. He allowed this repression of his own staff under his watch. He also failed to detect the corruption. He is now in charge of detecting corruption in the public sector.

That gives you a little hint of what it is really like to work in Wellington as a public servant now. It is a perpetual climate of fear and obedience, where the good go punished and there is no justice for incompetence or malice.

At the Inland Revenue Department, they are going to cut 30% of the workforce. They are rolling out an enormous new computer system, to overtake the old one which has been running as a set of patch-ups with Kiwisaver loaded onto it, childcare payment changes, new tax thresholds, new rebates, all on an ageing computer architecture.

Sure, this kind of automation is affecting the entire accounting industry. And granted this set of changes has been building for several years. However the Public Service Association says that “The loss of expert staff and the lack of certainty for workers reapplying for more simplistically modified roles means that important regulatory changes to the tax system rest on very shaky foundations.”

The Taxpayers Union agrees with the PSA (!).

Other accounting analysts on Radio New Zealand this morning were equally concerned at the gutting of regulatory and interpretative capacity in the department.

The IRD is one of the largest and most vital instruments of state. It collects the money in tax, but does far more. People I know of in there are there because they want the whole of New Zealand to pay their share in order that the instruments of state do their best to redistribute equity across the whole population.

3,000 people likely unemployed, meaning 3,000 mortgages at risk in Wellington. That is one huge hit to the economy.

Granted this is nothing on the scale of perpetual restructures that occurred in Wellington in the 1990s. And yes, with unemployment at around 5% they will likely find lesser jobs to do something with.

But let’s make a couple of quick points.

The public service in Wellington are a core of the remaining middle class in New Zealand. Liquidate them and you liquidate not only their mortgages, but also the things they buy: travel, babysitters, gardeners, concert bookings, trips to Moore Wilsons, private schools, nice clothes, nice cars, restaurants, wine, regular haircuts, and in fact all the things that employ tens of thousands of other New Zealanders. Your entire life and family goes down a couple of pegs, and never returns. That’s not a reason to keep them in jobs. It simply notes that such moves cool the entire Wellington economy by devastating thousands of people.

The public service run the country. To take the IRD for example, there’s very little chance you can call them to get exemptions or extensions to filing deadlines, interpretations of regulatory clauses, or someone who can actually point you on the phone in the right direction. Because they will have been fired. That is the capacity being hollowed out. And don’t get me started on the lies and lifeboat ethics you see when there’s a major restructure on. It’s the evil part of human nature, covering a good shanking to your future with a tissue of meaningless and flippant corporate lies.

For those political parties who would like to do large things with the public sector, such as the Greens plans for massive social welfare spending all of which have huge tax implications, good luck getting those implemented. Compare that to the lack of capacity that already exists in Wellington to deal with the housing crisis, and you can see the inertia any future Labour government would face implementing tens of thousands of houses built per year. Hundreds of people debate and contest policy ideas in elections, and politicians make their promises, but without public servants to do them they just can’t and won’t happen.

Some people survive such restructures, and you see their names pop up across town in new departments, freshly-minted government agencies doing roughly the same stuff with yet another new brand. The churn is perpetual, the dumb ideas and new departments are just a pathetic and perpetual waste that you see year after year after year. That’s almost part of the nature of governments changing.

But this government has led this culture. Hollowed out, unable to act, disempowered, vengeful, cowed, increasingly corrupt. Most public servants, like most of New Zealand’s middle class, just continue to go backwards. A good country needs a good public service and good public servants to deliver that service.

It’s dying.

28 comments on “Why be a public servant?”

  1. Sam C 1

    I live in Wellington and know plenty of public servants (including a couple of chief executives). I don’t know any who have gardeners or send their kids to private schools, but most of them do enjoy a wine and, God forbid, get a regular haircut.

    You yourself point out that the IRD restructure has been telegraphed for years – by all means jump up and down if you don’t like the final outcome, but at this stage there is scant detail of what the final structure will look like.

    What exactly is the point of this post?

    • Ad 1.1

      After two massive stories about specific departments, you don’t see a point to the post?

      Since you asked, and don’t have a critical faculty to actually use, here are some points within the post.

      1. Public servants are important to executing policy, but they are being gutted in IRD and a lot of people are reasonably worried about it. There’s a fair few commentators about today who are also concerned – some of whom I linked to so that you can help form that missing critical faculty of yours.

      2. Restructuring a government department with very large redundancies has a very large economic impact.

      3. The middle class is very important to New Zealand, and the Wellington public service is vital to that.

      4. The culture of bullying within the Ministry of Transport has occurred under the current government, and was carried out in a noteworthy specific instance by the person who is now the Auditor General. And it was noteworthy enough that the State Services Commissioner got involved. And made a specific speech about the importance of whistleblowing. Again, I linked to that to assist with your missing critical faculty.

      5. Degrading public servants and cutting their capacity severely limits the ability of an alternative government to implement policy. This is worth taking note of with two months to go to a new government.

      Since you didn’t understand any of that, you need to sit down with these public servant friends of yours – including those chief executives – and do a bit of reflection.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within MoT.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within NZTA.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within IRD.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within DoC.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within MoJ.

      Ask them about the culture and capacity within MoH.

      Or the Ombudsman’s Office. Or the Privacy Commissioner.
      There’s a few more I could list, but that should be enough conversations with your friends for you to be getting on with so that you can figure out what the point of the post is.

      • mickysavage 1.1.1

        I agree with Ad. Today is a really bad day for the public service. How the feck did Mot get things so bad? And how can they justify cutting a third of IRD’s staff?

        • Ad

          It was great to see the PSA voice their serious concerns about the IRD restructure, in the release I linked to.

          The stories I hear of the departments I listed are horrific. Hopefully the PSA will call out the relevant Ministers for these departments for disgraceful conduct. After all, there’s an election on.

          There is nothing to lose, except an oppressive government.

        • Sam C

          With ref to my comment at 2 below, I hadn’t seen the SSC’s findings when I typed that. Hard to argue with the findings – as Micky says, how did MOT get it so badly wrong?

          Not sure that Martin Matthews will be returning from his leave of absence.

          • mickysavage


          • Rob

            If Matthews can be so easily conned by J Harrison how can he be auditor General
            He may even be conned by bully boys like a former minister of transport!

          • gsays

            he certainly shouldn’t.
            made me curious how auditor general got the job.
            the officers of parliament committee said so.
            said committee includes carter, mallard, clendon, sepuloni, stewart, ross, flavell.

            • Loop

              “made me curious how auditor general got the job.”

              The same way surjon became a night and got oz order of merit. Systemic failings and willful blindness

      • Doogs 1.1.2

        You only missed out the Ministry of Education. All sorts of shit going on there!

      • SARAH 1.1.3

        You left out MPI. I listened to someone talking about the culture there and most who work there are appalled at what goes on.

  2. Sam C 2

    In re your first 3 points, as I said above, this has been telegraphed for a long time. There were always going to be relatively large job losses as a result of the implementation of the new system at IRD. Since I (and presumably you) don’t know the exact nature of those job losses, it is premature to speculate as to the economic impact or otherwise.

    As for 4, I’m not close enough to that to agree or disagree about the culture at MOT, but will wait for the findings of the report.

    Re point 5 – so are you saying that the IRD restructure was announced two months before the election with the express intention of limiting the ability of an alternative government to implement policy? That’s a pretty long bow to draw.

    I think I’ll pass on the reflection with my friends though, thanks. We’ll probably just sit around drinking wine, eating small-goods from Moore Wilson while watching the gardener raking the leaves, talking about how miserable the culture is in their departments and how lacking in capacity their departments are and how they can’t wait for an alternative government to save the day.

    • Ad 2.1

      Top work on the analysis and capacity to use a reply button.

      If you think it’s premature to speculate on the economic impact of a restructure, then you haven’t been through one. Speculate about your future is the first thing to do, and it’s the only wise thing to do. Every one of those people going through restructures goes through fear and a focus about their actual interests. Their entire family goes through that damage together. If you are not aware of the studies about how the great majority of restructured people never recover either their economic or social status they once had, elucidate yourself.

      Since you think just sitting on your fucking ass hoping that the impact will be light is the right approach, then clearly you are either a chief executive, a minister, or a union organiser that has been bought. Doesn’t matter which – your reaction would be the same.

      You sure aren’t from the SSC, because they are the only people showing spine right now.

      Every single large scale restructure in Wellington in the last thirty years has involved massive job losses. These fuckers are true to their word. If you don’t know that, then you don’t know as many public servants as you say you do.

      On point 5, if you can’t see the capacity issue, you are blind.

      Clearly you don’t like the idea of being middle class. You don’t like seeing how restructures affect an entire economy. You don’t like admitting who does or does not go to Moore Wilsons. Or has childcare. Or goes to Pacific islands or skiing during winter. You are in denial.

      Every single thing you say shows that you are caught within a bubble. About time you started opening your eyes to the damage to the public service that this government is doing.

  3. Bill 3

    Maybe somewhat relevant.

    Was in conversation with a foreign national who works for ACC. They were saying ACC seems to prefer hiring foreign nationals to do claim assessments because they lack the insight to know what ACC used to be and so are unable, perhaps, to evaluate or criticise new claims criteria on the basis of historical or institutional knowledge.

    And that conversation originally reminded me of scenes from the “I Daniel Blake” film where the lead character has to make their claim in electronic form where to will sent off to someone he never meets or speaks to who will assess his claim against a series of tick boxes.

    And coming back to your post.

    What would be a possible motivation for gutting the civil service? Some departments, I’ve no doubt, could be deliberately run down then held up as inefficient failures that would be better run as and by private contractors.

    UK equivalent of WINZ is already contracted out. I could see ACC being contracted out. And I’m sure there are many other departments that could be “ripened for the picking”.

    And then government’s reduced to over-seeing the process of contracting out and perhaps somewhat lackadaisically, monitoring the services that have become contracted out.

    Small and corrupt government heaven?

    • Ad 3.1

      I certainly don’t think the public service in general is corrupt here – I think on the contrary the mid-level and operational staff are usually saints operating in ridiculous constraints.

      Yes there is an accelerated hollowing out of actual public servants in many of the social welfare arms, in favour of a highly devolved and contractarian culture with awkward and opaque accountability mechanisms into NGO trusts. But that’s too big an area for my little post today.

      I do think the quality of mid and high-level management in the public service in Wellington’s core public service is on average very, very low.

      There have been a few standouts with real heft and excellence over the last few years – Dr Prebble, Jeff Dangerfield and David Smol and of course Hugh Rennie come to mind. But so many of them are out of their depth, and do exactly what we have seen at MoT and are seeing now in IRD. Chaos ensues.

      • Bill 3.1.1

        Didn’t mean to imply that the public service is corrupt.

        Your description of mid-level and operational staff compared to higher-level management, seems to chime with what I hear from people working for larger NGOs dependent on government funding.

        You want regime change and you have the wherewithal, then step one is to promote unimaginative “yes” peeps into top positions, no?

    • AsleepWhileWalking 3.2

      I shudder to think of what WINZ would be like if it contracted out like the disaster that is UK welfare.

  4. savenz 4

    Maybe IRD will offer free meals and training and help getting residency in return for free workers at IRD on their new computer systems and turning a blind eye, wink wink to government tax evasion and fraud.

    They could put Judith Collins in charge and with our auditor General after his promotion after being asleep at the wheel with The ministry of Transport frauds.

    A joint brain fart from The Maori Party and National party policy in action – what a winner.

  5. Anne 5

    Thanks Ad. Your summation of the Public Service as I experienced it is very accurate. Especially:

    That gives you a little hint of what it is really like to work in Wellington as a public servant now. It is a perpetual climate of fear and obedience, where the good go punished and there is no justice for incompetence or malice.

    Be assured it not only happened in Wellington and it is interesting to note my own experience also involved the Ministry of Transport – 20+ years ago.

    One aspect you only touched upon which plays a significant role is the Peter Principle

    • Andre 5.1

      The Peter Principle is long gone. And that’s not a good thing. When the Peter Principle was operative, the boss was someone who, once upon a time, was actually good at something related to that workplace. Now, not so much.

      • Anne 5.1.1

        I was referring more to this definition:

        the Peter Principle the theory, usually taken facetiously, that all members in a hierarchy rise to their own level of incompetence.

        It began with the restructuring in the late 1980s/1990s and is imo a direct consequence of neoliberal practices. I witnessed it firsthand in the MoT 25 years ago. Wisdom and experience flew out the window and was replaced by “youthful dynamism” – at least that was the expression used by one idiot manager I had the misfortune to work under.

        • Andre

          They used to have to rise to their level of incompetence. Nowadays they just get bunged straight in to a level of greater incompetence.

          • Anne

            That is true. I saw tried and true managers starting at the very top tossed out in 1989 and replaced by a bunch of incompetents from other jurisdictions, including the private sector, and within 2 to 3 years the govt. department I worked for was on its knees. They, in turn, were tossed out and the whole shebang became an SOE and as far as I can tell has prospered since. I hate to say it but it was the Minister of Transport, Rob Storey in the Bolger Govt. who came to the rescue and re-introduced some commonsense appointments.

      • Cricklewood 5.1.2

        Its why I having started my career in council have moved and stayed within the small companies in the private sector. Inevitably the company owner understands and is engaged in what they are doing.
        The admin building where i started out was colliqually known as ‘bullshit castle’ which was apt. As a small but typical example an edict was issued that no small plant could be purchased as a result we spent thousands of dollars hiring a $500 lawnmower for 6 months…

  6. One Anonymous Bloke 6

    the inertia

    How many degrees does the direction of the inertia need to change?
    Things that are already moving get lighter, as anyone who has ever pushed a car can attest.

  7. Nice post.

    I worked as a labourer ( officially called a ….’ Headworks Assistant ‘ … L0L ! ) in the ARA… ( Auckland Regional Authority ) in the 1980’s out there in the Waitakere Ranges.

    1980 – 1986.

    I left that job just before the guys knew it was all going to be broken up and privatized. They all said I was mad to leave . Little did we all know. At the depo I worked at , they almost all lost their jobs. And so it was across the ARA as all depts were privatized to one extent or another.

    I don’t forget or forgive easily when people in suits fuck others over.

    Especially when I see the shitters responsible rolling in cash and in social positions publicly commenting on ‘changes that need to be done in order to be more efficient’ .

    The same goes when I see shitters who are well off talking about economic downturns that affect thousands of peoples lives forever talking about ‘ market corrections’ … as if sanitizing it with a euphemism legitimizes fucking those thousands over as if they are mere cattle to be consumed.

    Neo liberalism.

    The filthiest , most treacherous ideology to afflict the modern western democracy’s that ever we had the misfortune to be taken in by.

    New Right Fight – Who are the New Right?

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