|CPDS Home Contact||Professionalism: Chronological Summary|
9 December 2005
Dr Scott Prasser
Overcoming Official Incompetence
I would like to make some suggestions concerning your recent proposal for ending the poor decisions, bungled projects and waste of public money that result from appointing incompetent public officials.
Your article suggested trying to ensure that, though senior officials might be politically partisan, they should at least be competent.
The issue you raised is important. For example, the financial cost of de-skilling on Queensland's increasingly dysfunctional and crisis prone public sector is becoming significant (see Evidence of a Problem). Moreover, as your article correctly noted, the problem is by no means limited to any one government (see also Decay of Australian Public Administration).
However the particular options that your article suggested would be unlikely to work because official incompetence seems to be a systemic consequence of political control of official appointments and working conditions. The problem seems to be that:
The Westminster tradition, which was developed in the UK in the mid 19th century and Queensland / Australia then inherited, incorporated under-stated protections against such problems (eg an independent professional Public Service, and other institutions to limit the power of elected politicians). However problems re-emerged when that system was (accidentally?) demolished.
While the US has had more success with appointment of what you labelled 'merit-cronies', Queensland's / Australia's situation is much different because of the local lack of institutions in which potential 'merit-cronies' could gain the required knowledge / experience (see Deficiencies in Opposition's Approach to Senior Public Service Appointments). Moreover the US system of partisan official appointments seems to be contributing to ineffective action in the war against terror (ie action focused primarily on military rather than civil options), and to increasingly widespread concern about top-level official incompetence in US government. Future credibility and more effective performance probably requires a shift by the US to a more professional and independent Public Service system.
The consequence of shifting from a professional to an amateur Public Service in Queensland and elsewhere have been repeatedly pointed out to all Members of the Legislative Assembly for over a decade (see Chronological Summary). However MLAs generally have not wanted to to hear about either the resulting abuses or the practical failures - presumably because those problems imply that there has to be more to effective government than getting electoral support and autocratically issuing instructions. The problem of loss of official competence was also highlighted to the Queensland Council of Professions in 2003. However, while the members of the Council seemed to agree that there was a problem, they did not know what to do about it.
The challenge is to develop the institutional capability to acquire and retain the necessary competencies. One way to do this effectively would be through re-creation of an independent professional Public Service. Significant improvements in the competence and coherence of Queensland's Public Service were made in the 1970s when this issue was taken seriously. Unfortunately in the 1980s the 'ship of state' was allowed to drift and ultimately crashed into rocks in the late 1980s. It was then hauled onto a sandbank for repairs - and has lain there slowly rusting ever since.
However now that increasing demands are being placed on Queensland's public sector (eg to provide services to cope with rapid population growth) the chickens are coming home to roost. There have thus been increasing attempts to contain the costs of incompetent government (eg see examples outlined in Improving Public Sector Performance). However, as the latter document notes, those efforts are bound to be futile because the effect of incompetent policy choices can't be corrected by saving on (say) postage stamps, but only by better policy choices.
Thus there is a real need to solve the problems that your article identified - though, as noted above, the issue is anything but simple.
Centre for Policy and Development Systems
|Feedback||Third Party Feedback Received 9/12/05
A well written letter.
As we now have virtually every SES position being decided on political affiliations as much as everything else, and I can assure you ability is very low on the list, maybe its time to de-politicise the Public Service by a number of methods.
Firstly, we now have senior public servants that cannot write, develop policy, or have any experience outside of either politics or academia.
A career PS meant starting at the bottom, or close to and working your way up because you developed skills and were good at what you did. A degree did not automatically impart those skills. It is an art form. Having people skip several grades every 2 years to get them to the top because they are the Branch Secretary etc doesn't do the state or country any good.
I know of DG's who never attend a meeting because they are so introverted they can't talk to people, not only fellow public servants but anybody in the community. So where do they get their real life experience from, books presumably.
When I started out no one was a member of a political party, it was never an issue. You were a Public Servant first and foremost. How you voted no one cared and no one wanted to know to see if you were promotion worthy.
I fear it is too late as with the new Health budget it is still about the managers. They move people out of Health to make it look good on the numbers side but the same people go on doing the same jobs but under a different identity. These people are all about power, especially within the party so numbers under you equates to power, and so does a large budget.
We have a country where infrastructure will soon be on third world standards yet Gov'ts have record income levels and surpluses. The money goes into Bureaucrats. We face enormous competition from China and India both for resources and from cheap labour. We survive because we have mineral wealth. But we are nearly out of oil and when that hits US$100.00 a barrel just watch the economy. US interest rates keep on climbing and everyone here keeps believing ours won't go up. Its like Alice in Wonderland stuff.
Maybe we need it all to go belly up before we get the changes required.
But Politics and the Public Service are now all about process not results.
[Signed . experienced ex public servant]