You may have noticed that the government rarely seems to change. Sure, politicians change every now and then, but the system does not. There are always protocols and processes that industry and members of the public need to go through before they get approvals, permits etc.
Periodically, however, industry finds an amenable government and the public service is put under pressure to make the system work faster. You hear cries of ‘The system must be streamlined!’, ‘There are too many approvals needed for each project’, or ‘We need to deal with fewer departments,’ or most likely, ‘It’s taking too long and we are losing money.’ A good example of how this works is in the area of approvals, be they environmental, planning or any other sort of statutory approvals process.
There will be intense pressure, and when, not if but when, the politicians have overcome all the efforts of the majority of public servants, it is time for those most senior bureaucrats, Directors General, Chief Executive Officers and General Managers, to act. This is where it is necessary for them use all their experience and ensure the formation of stakeholder reference groups, inter-agency working groups and ministerial taskforces.
It’s then time to talk about cutbacks or, as politicians call them, efficiency dividends. It’s all in the terminology. Governments all over the world come to power with the stated aim of improving the efficiency of the public service. They gain mileage in the press by launching attacks on the process, the amount of red tape, and inconvenience this causes to business and therefore the economy. They arrive at Parliament frothing at the mouth in their eagerness to make a difference. The poor, misguided souls are simply not aware that they are destined for failure. They are dealing with the most experienced and able bureaucrats - the heads of departments.
The first step to deal with such troublesome politicians is to wrap up their efficiency drives in the very red tape that they are to be designed to overcome. The formation of working groups, steering committees and industry reference groups will ensure that all stakeholders are represented and all have a say. The very advanced bureaucrat will get the politicians involved in the process through ministerial working groups. This will put politicians in the position of actually taking responsibility and ownership of the decisions that occur. Politicians entwined in the system will be reluctant to admit failure and will therefore be able to be manipulated for the benefit of bureaucrats everywhere.
Each new efficiency drive will end up requiring the writing of many reports, the compilation of many recommendations, and the taking of people away from everyday activities to carry out this work. The result will be a backlog of work building up and the impression that a department is getting slower, thus annoying industry even more. At this time, the more perceptive politicians will realise that they are caught in the public service web and will look for ways to escape…but it will already be too late. They will look on with dismay as their speechwriters give them many opportunities to talk-up the ‘improvements’ that are on the way.
After a suitably lengthy time, reports will start to arrive. They will have various terrible conclusions. The public service needs to be changed. There are serious systemic problems. The public’s money is not being spent in an efficient manner. The list will go on and on giving the Press many opportunities to stick the knife into the government and its departments. The inexperienced public servant may find this upsetting, but those with a better understanding will realize that they have already won. As soon as the committees were formed, there was never any prospect of any serious change occurring. In successful cases, there will be further levels of bureaucracy added to processes in the name of efficiency.
For instance, a Lead Agency System may be initiated. This is where one agency is put in charge of facilitating the approvals for a project. They will then need to keep a raft of other agencies in line and on time. So, in addition to the old process, there is now another layer of the public service. This new layer will lack the necessary expertise in other approvals areas and cause more harm than good in the process, thus further frustrating the relevant industries.
Another popular outcome is the Interdepartmental Forum. This is a group of department heads that meets on a semi-regular basis to talk a lot about ‘how terrible the delays are’ and express the opinion that ‘something must be done’. They also have very long lunches and meet at country clubs, five-star hotels, and major sporting events. Where possible they link up with similar groups in other countries and have conferences on tropical islands.
As the politicians realise the situation they are in, they will do most of the work needed to sell the new and non-existent ‘changes’ to the public. This will further buffer the public service from direct impacts and provide a five-year timeframe within which no further requests for changes need to be acted upon. They will also ensure that they are invited to conferences on tropical islands.
This is bureaucracy at its most advanced. Only those with many, many years of experience should attempt this sort of complex manipulation. One wrong move and you will find yourself in charge of issuing driver’s licenses on some remote corner of your country. Many right moves and you will find a nice pension when retirement comes knocking.
George Fripley is the author of You Can't Polish a Turd - The Civil Servant's Manual.