Part of the implicit deal between the ruling class and the ruled is that people are willing to overlook moderate levels of deception, corruption and class contempt, provided government is halfway competent. Across the democratic world, voters are no longer accepting the deal for one reason: that condition is no longer being met.
In Australia that competence deficit is fuelled by the selection and capacities of ministers and their office staff, and how they interact with a bureaucracy lacking management skills and personal accountability.
In short, the strategic and managerial failings of ministers and their offices ensure continuing bureaucratic failure. That the political class across all political parties sees this as normal and acceptable is an important reason that it is losing legitimacy.
Ministerial portfolios are a reward for factional seniority. Allocating a portfolio is how a leader distributes the spoils of electoral victory and metes out factional payoffs and vengeance. When this is combined with a resistant bureaucracy incapable of executing strategic initiatives, and a ministerial staff largely composed of youthful political hacks, competence falls off the radar.
Let’s be blunt here; with some notable exceptions, most ministers would barely qualify as mid-level managers in a listed company. It is utterly absurd to expect them, aided by a couple of adults and a mass of political hack twenty-somethings new to the portfolio, to be able to manage, let alone reform, a department of 10-40,000 people run by a lifelong bureaucratic game player.
The recent kerfuffle (and Catherine Cusack’s leaked email) over the NSW ministerial reshuffle highlights this selection problem. How NSW portfolios were allocated indicates precisely how unimportant strategic or execution competence are as criteria. By many accounts, ministers were appointed:
- Because of a threat to resign from parliament at a bad time for by-elections;
- As a payoff for the new minister’s right faction not contesting an upcoming preselection, giving the leader’s faction a clear run;
- To stick a factional competitor in a portfolio with upcoming scandals;
- To pay off the parliamentary faction head who got the leader the job;
- To lock in a key numbers man at a time of factional flux; and
- To deal with the flow-on effect these decisions had on other portfolios.
Ministerial staffers are appointed after factional political vetting and generally based on personal relationships with the minister. While a chief of staff will be experienced, they may have no specific portfolio knowledge. A senior policy adviser may be the only technically competent person in an office of eight to 10 people. Most ministerial staffers have no qualification other than being active branch stackers or factional and party campaigners and frequently have little to no working experience and none at all of large organisation management. Everything falls on the chief and senior policy and media advisers to make things happen, or as is more likely, to simply stay on top of what the bureaucracy is doing and what the media is saying.
The preponderance of young staffers means they shy away from difficult strategic, managerial or technical questions and focus on media management, and grossly overestimate the importance of fluff such as social media and lifestyle spin.
This reinforces the political class’ focus on managing appearances (looking good rather than doing good) and the news cycle, and the recurrent failure to look beyond the next election. All this does is reinforce the status quo and all its problems.
Cabinet reshuffles generally see entire ministerial offices replaced with people totally ignorant of the portfolio. When a minister moves, so do all the staff. This is particularly true when the new minister is from a different faction. Result? Complete loss of intellectual capital and policy competence.
For politicos familiar with ministerial offices and public sector pathology, none of this will be news. Certainly, it won’t be news to long-time viewers of Yes, Minister or The Hollowmen. What is important, however, is that it is a key contributor to the political class failure to identify and implement changes with real effect, and to report on them without spin that aims to avoid accountability. This failure underpins what is rapidly becoming a volatile voter revolt.
Even where there is a reasonable portfolio strategy in place (which is usually in the first year after a change in government), ministerial offices are incapable of ensuring that it gets done. This, despite the capacity of all ministers to direct the public service to follow a particular course of action. Consider the delivery failures of grand policies such as the NBN, NDIS, school halls programs or any defence, IT or infrastructure contract; or lesser ones, such as red tape reduction, digital transformation or extremist deradicalisation.
Getting it done is what matters, and that is where the public sector fails. It is also where ministerial offices abrogate responsibility – they have the right to direct departments to improve their capacity for execution and do not, simply because they don’t have the understanding, bandwidth or skills to do so.
We have words, words and more words from both minister and department, and zero effective action. Bureaucracy hides behind the distinction between policy making and doing. In theory, the minister sets policy and strategic direction, and takes advice from the department on how to execute. But what if what really matters is how to do things so they work? That the most important thing is to drive the public sector to change how it gets things done? This is the real failure of our system – the ministerial offices that can improve public sector delivery are the very entities that don’t have the competence or will to do so.
What is the result? A public sector that cannot deliver and cannot change – which hurts the people who rely on government most. An eventual absence of strategic vision and execution, even if one was present at a change in government. Increased empowerment of the bureaucracy, and with it an enhanced capacity for bureaucrats to delay, obfuscate, hide from accountability, and misrepresent their department’s activities and impact on citizens. Continual loss of portfolio intellectual capital with each reshuffle, hamstringing effective management.
More importantly, it leaves engaged citizens with the feeling that no matter who they vote for, or what they do, incompetence reigns supreme. When that happens, history suggests people turn on constitutions that lock in a system that doesn’t work. As an American blogger recently pointed out:
Competent establishments are not deposed — because they’re competent. They are nimble, react well to changing circumstances and growing discontent, and tweak their course to maintain their power and authority.
Only incompetent establishments provoke a rebellion.
Our current political class is culturally incapable of recognising this as a problem. In this, as in many other ways, they are inviting their own destruction.
This is the first of two articles addressing public sector competence and ministerial office culture. The second addresses reform options and their possible consequences.
Illustration: BBC Television.
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