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Democracy or Bureaucracy

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Daily we should give thanks to the front line workers – the defence personnel, health workers, educators, police and fire men and women who work on the front line to keep our country secure and safe, teach our children and look after our health. Many do a great job under what can be trying circumstances. Pensions get paid and housing is found for the needy. All good stuff!

Traditionally the role of the public service was to give “frank and fearless” advice to the Minister of the day in support of the elected government’s stated policy. Today the bureaucracy has become politicised and proactive in pursuing elitist social agendas of its own that have little relevance to the people they are being paid to serve (e.g. climate change, same sex marriage, gender fluidity, colonisation, western civilisation, vegetation management, unconscious bias). From the luxury of assured public sector employment, pay and benefits without responsibility, it is all too easy to become creative, snobbishly influencing the direction of the lives of others to carve a niche and meaning for one’s own life.

Just do the job

We expect that public servants will do their job, make timely, relevant decisions serving the public interest and maintain the purpose of the agency. In simplest form, health services should deliver health outcomes, educators should teach, police should protect people.

Unfortunately that is not always the case. For example, the National Disability Insurance Agency is ripe for bureaucratic exploitation, with its open ended financial structure and bottomless client base. Clients of the NDIA report public servants show reluctance to move outside their swanky new offices or have face-to-face consultation with them about the critical issues being faced. Instead, severely disabled clients and their carers have to deal with “hot lines” that never warm up to a response and are beset with pages of unintelligible bureaucratic discourse that demands ever more “evidence” to be obtained at ever greater expense to the client. Why send 20 pages when a 15 minute conversation would do?

The job is not being done; useful decisions are not being made; and the purpose of the Agency is being distorted to become a sheltered workshop for public servants as they ponder the gazette for the next promotion, bitch about each other and the clients and fill in time till retirement on full benefits at 55 years. The best of democratic intent is being undermined by bureaucratic self-interest and no one is being called to account.

Financial regulators

An examination of recent history shows how bureaucratic regulators either fail to exercise their proper authority or use it punishingly to destroy business initiative.

With even a smattering of knowledge of the Royal Commission into Banking most of you would be aware of the over reach and harm done to customers’ financial position by the banks and financial services industry as unmitigated greed ruled. Neither of the regulatory authorities – APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) or ASIC (Australian Securities and Investment Corporation) – charged with responsibility for looking after citizens’ interests were shown to be effective in doing their job.

Furthermore the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) had been using its enormous powers to destroy legitimate small businesses and decimate selected research efforts by refusing ABN numbers. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this government has been the establishment of the small business tax tribunal, to be responsible to the court system and not the ATO. In doing so, the playing field has been levelled to give business initiatives a fighting chance of survival against bureaucratic authority.

As part of a suite of efforts to redress the balance of power towards business rather than bureaucrats, democratically elected Minister Michaelia Cash and assistant Treasurer Stuart Roberts have enforced fair contracts and implemented requirements that government and other large corporations pay small business within 20-30 days, encouraging cash flow lending. As someone who has waited 5-6 months for University or government to pay up to $20K, good luck with that one!

Financial commentator Robert Gottliebsen says all these actions are required to create an environment for people to develop new ideas. We need many more of them, if only to pay for the expanding numbers and cost of the bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic decision-making

Those familiar with my Maturity Model will be aware of the healthy tension required between key elements of choice, responsibility and expectation if we are to achieve harmony and productivity and avoid fragmentation of individuals and community.

Examining bureaucratic decision-making against the Maturity Model shows that too often performance falls short of value for taxpayer investment, mostly by failing to assume responsibility for the task in hand. Take the following examples:

  • Transactional decisions are routine determinations and the most common, prone to complacency that ends up costing the country dearly, as patterns of slack conduct evolve – e.g. ASIC and Centrelink – the latter subject major retrieval in excess of $4 billion. No one is responsible.
  • Committee decisions, being shared decisions, relieve everybody of responsibility and accountability. For the Queensland Health system IT upgrade the committee decision against advice ended up costing an extra $1 billion.
  • Circle of death non-decisions occur when genuine enquiries are hand-balled between people and agencies with no decision being made. Either the issue dies or the proponents do. I have personal experience of a simple matter requiring a definitive decision being passed around for 18 years without resolution or shame, the actual and opportunity cost being borne by the unsatisfied public.
  • Regulatory decisions intended to bring order and certainty can become skewed when the authority of the regulator also becomes the accuser, judge, jury and executioner. Changes at the ATO are intended to address this distortion to give small business a hearing and a chance at least cost. Much the same is needed in the environmental area where ill-informed and ill-willed bureaucrats can destroy a business, employment, a farm or a mine and efforts at environmental stewardship, virtually without redress.

There are so many more instances where implementation of democracy favours the interests of the bureaucracy:

  • Family Court where the interests of the child are supposed to be paramount finds the court cabal rules and children are low order considerations;
  • Aboriginal industry and education soaking up $35 billion a year to little avail, largely because bureaucratic self-interest, dishonesty and reluctance to deal with the real issues, or challenge recipient communities to responsibility;
  • Education bureaucrats who push the curriculum formula loaded with social agendas that cause distress when so little deference is paid to the cognitive development of the target children. No wonder so many children are stressed and medicated and educational standards continue to decline, when the purpose of such a major investment – the education of children – is a lesser issue than the power and internal wrangling of an intransigent educational bureaucracy.

More of them

But wait, like the Demtel man, there is more. The Palaszcszuk government has appointed more than 30,000 additional public servants in Queensland without any noticeable improvement in efficiency or effectiveness.

After eight years and countless law fare challenges, the Adani mine has still not been approved to proceed, stalling another 5 mines in the Carmichael area, as well as the shared railway line to the port. Ambulances are still ramping and waiting lists for surgery grow. No one is responsible. Palaszczuk has merely bought an additional voting block of 30,000 for Labor at taxpayer expense. What does that do for democracy?

Flow-on effects

It doesn’t stop there. The public servant attitude of never lifting one’s head above the parapet, never making decisions or owning responsibility for them, not doing the job properly and the complacency, carry over into their private lives, where criticism for those who are responsible and make decisions is rife. Neither do they settle well into business, where workers are expected to add value to the business, not become a cost sink.

It’s time the reward structure within the bureaucracy honoured those who take responsibility, show initiative and add value to the taxpayer investment in keeping with a knowledge economy. Only then will the people’s democratic will be expressed by the bureaucracy.

 

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