Civil service overhaul

officesHere’s a line from a recent article by Harold Mitchell writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on club mentality in the civil serviceIf we just keep swapping jobs around among the boys, before we know where we are, the world will have gone past us and the boys won’t care. 

The lament is not a new one. Many know that the civil service system inherited from the British is a cunning mixture of yes minister patronising and self-preservation. Don’t appear to rock the boat as you climb the bureaucrat ladder to success. Adhere to these two metaphors and you should rise in the system cleverly skipping from department to department. It is smart to hone skills in boating and rung adherence because they are far more important than any topic expertise.

Arguably it is no better in business. Only there it is ok to rock the boat near to capsize as you climb the ladder. But in business it is unlikely that you can readily switch from let’s say the insurance ladder to one in pharmaceuticals. In business topic expertise also has some value.

Harold Mitchell was calling for a change to the club mentality that sees senior public servants shuffle around with abandon among the portfolios. He might have added that the same happens in the lower ranks too. Especially at Federal level, junior staff also shuffle between positions and from ladder to ladder all too frequently. They learn the fine art of survival in a system they see as being inherently unstable and insecure.

Risk is the given justification for feeling antsy. Certainly if I had a dollar for every departmental name change over the last 15 years or 10c for every time I heard a staffer say ‘there are not enough resources to do that’ then I could retire from my own ladder today. But this is a ruse. In fact the tasks are the same whatever the moniker and the resources are still there. Almost all of those who claimed to be in fear of their jobs are still in one.

I think that what happens is that club mentality in the high ranks seeps down the ladders too. It creates an atmosphere of fear and even loathing that cramps the creativity and drains the capacity of the whole system.

My experience with the Feds has mainly been with the wonders of the Carbon Farming Initiative. Here in the land of carbon offsets and emission abatement — that without irony has nothing to do with farming as you and I understand the term — you can see the system visibly strangling the staff and shunting them around. Staffers seem to move just when they are about to understand the details of their job and those that stay pretend that they have no idea. Now I can’t pass without saying that some of these people were complicit. They were boating and laddering with the best of them. Most though were prevented from being good at their jobs by the system.

This inefficiency was not the only reason that the CFI was a wasted opportunity to make a real difference to the climate change conundrum but it certainly didn’t help. Now that the CFI has become ‘Direct Action’ a new round of staff has set about reinventing offset payments yet again. Only this time coal mines can get offsets for mining coal — go figure.

Meantime the world has indeed gone past us.