CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

3 February 2006

Dr Jacqui Murray

'Just doing my job - a sorry excuse'

Congratulations on your recent article which made a very serious effort to get to grips with with causes of the manifest dysfunctions in Queensland Health (and in the state public sector generally).

My interpretation of your article: Too much emphasis on process has caused problems in the health system. Bureaucrats shrugged off moral responsibility with the excuse that they merely adhered to accepted process. Systemic failure arises when administration's mission is process not product, and there is no leadership accountability. If ministers' statements are correct, Queensland Health was managed by bureaucrats whose stock-in-trade was concealment, half-truth and self preservation. Ministers continue to say, they were never told about problems. Have Queensland health bureaucrats been a law unto themselves - and perhaps deliberately ignored government policy? This could attract action for official misconduct. This could result in development of water-tight processes as defence against outside interference. There is a huge management to staff ratio, and evidence of bullying. After Fitzgerald commission retraining exercises were intended to rid public servants of bad old habits - a goal which was needed at the time. But now restructuring has become an end in itself. Recently a senior medical professional observed that Queensland Health is not a nice place to work - and the same is said about the Queensland public sector as a whole. Politicisation of senior ranks is seen to have contributed to systemic failure. Many speak of the debasing of the merit selection system. Many need to move on (Murray J., 'Just doing my job - a sorry excuse', Courier Mail, 31/1/06).

However to find a solution that will improve the situation there is a need to look deeper. An emphasis on process rather than a product has developed because of the inability of politically favoured management in public agencies to deal competently with 'product' (ie the real responsibilities of agency) and the comfortable fallback of 'following due process' (see explanation of how this emerges in Systemic Defects in Public Administration). And an inability to deal with 'product' has in turn emerged because, as your article noted in a classic understatement, the merit selection system has been debased.

Queensland's current public administration disasters are primarily a legacy of 'reforms' by the Goss administration, under which reforms were an end in themselves (ie a process with no real product) and there was officially no serious requirement to consider merit in 'senior' Public Service appointments (eg see Toward Good Government in Queensland; Queensland's Worst Government?; and Ombudsman's reasons)

However I submit that your proposed solution (ie moving many people on) would not work - as problems arise from the poisonous (politicised) environment in which the Public Service has been forced to work for more than a decade. If career success depends on playing politics: weak staff who don't have a death wish will play politics; others will leave or be sacked; and the dysfunctions you mentioned will grow. However in an environment in which career success depends on practical performance, exactly the same people will often behave quite differently. There is no point in repeating the abuses of the Goss era. Public Service staff deserve the chance to prove themselves in a professional environment.

My suggestion for resolving problems in Queensland Health is to put people with relevant experience and knowledge in charge of recommending policy options to the political system in an environment in which they are free of political pressure. Because of Queensland's unfortunate administrative history, persons with the high level of ability needed to pull the threads together can not be expected to be available now for some years. However until a start is made to develop such capabilities, dysfunctions and crises must continue to escalate across the state public sector.


John Craig