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Howard's End: Viral Bureaucracy

My recent Howard's End column "Organisational Psychopaths" drew a global response to my email from Scoop readers. The central thrust of the feedback was very positive and asked for my views of exactly where I consider things could be further improved in New Zealand. Well, here goes. Maree Howard writes.

In that Howard's End column I wrote " Personally, I am sick and tired of having to deal with people in both government departments and business who are clearly dysfunctional and, from my experience, meet most of the criteria of an organisational psychopath."

For example, why would a government department allow possum fur to be imported into New Zealand from Australia when there are around 60,000 possums eating up our bush? Is that not the hallmarks of dysfunctional bureaucratic decision-making?

I work on the premise that most people firstly want the simple things in life. Safe and nutritional food, clean water, good shelter and a worthwhile job.

That's shouldn't be too hard to provide in a country such as New Zealand.

But when I discover that Coca-Cola and petrol is allowed to be cheaper than milk I, and most other Kiwi's should, become very angry.

How on earth did we ever get ourselves into the situation where people have to rely on food banks for basic survival? Or being cold because they can't afford electricity?

You, dear reader, should be very surprised and perhaps even outraged, to also learn that too many New Zealanders can only afford to pay-off a meagre two or three dollars a week from their electricity accounts.

One Scoop reader, who is a very public figure with a social conscience, wrote explaining that Government today is not your friend.

She said; " New Zealanders need to understand that while they worry about big corporations and globalisation, Government and its bureaucracy is quietly working away becoming all-encompassing."

Normally, I would say this is right-wing whacko stuff. But no, this came from a person who is publicly renowned for having a social conscience. On the surface she would appear to be a great friend of government.

But even she is concerned and has a fear of an out-of-control bureaucracy now staffed with people embodied with the traits of organisational psychopaths.

My Scoop feedback writer suggested that the employer of the State bureaucracy, the State Services Commission, is itself full of organisational psychopaths and so the pattern comes from the top.

That set me to thinking about "the bureaucracy."

Firstly, let me say that many at the lower level of bureaucracy are wonderful human beings working under very difficult and trying circumstances. Where the problem seems to be is at the middle to upper level of management.

For instance, do middle or upper management bureaucrats undergo regular organisational psychopath testing to establish whether they remain fit for the job? It seems they don't.

I would have thought that was vital, particularly when these people train (indoctrinate) young and impressionable staff and also deal with members of the public.

Bureaucrats - those "officials" appointed, hired or "named" to run bureaucracies - tend to grow themselves unnecessarily and exponentially.

According to sociologist C. Northcote Parkinson, the natural tendency of bureaucracy is to grow and keep on growing by at least 6 percent per year.

Then, wanting to appear busy or important, or both, bureaucrats increase their workload by writing memos, creating lots of rules and regulations, filling out forms and creating forms that need filling out and maintaining files.

In other words, a huge "make-work" programme.

Then a strange thing happens. These bureaucrats suddenly feel overburdened by all the work they have created. So they feel compelled to hire assistants.

At this point, bureaucracy really takes off because now - with growing workloads and numbers of assistants to manage - bureaucrats push for more power, responsibility and money because their jobs have become harder.

This organisational creep then begins to repeat itself over and over again until suddenly, the growth is out of control.

Parkinson observes that as a result of organisational creep, many bureaucrats end up doing the same work at a great cost to tax-payers.

Former US Vice President, Al Gore, when examining the US bureaucracy found " As a rule, virtually any task being done by government is being done by 20 or more other agencies."

Why do Kiwi's tolerate this in our government when we wouldn't tolerate it in our own lives?

Would you pay 20 electricity supply companies every month if you only had to pay one?

How many corporate executives would keep their jobs if they regularly hired 20 people to do the job of one? How many small business owners would survive if they hired 20 times the number of employees they actually needed?

That is the problem but there is a solution. The State Services Commission, as the employer of State servants, exists to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of the public service. Based on my experience it is failing miserably and I do not see much evidence of it holding rogues in the public service accountable for their behaviour.

The media has even adopted the name "Teflon Territory" when bad bureaucratic behaviour is not bought to book or held accountable.

In the Howard's End column "Organisational Psychopaths" I wrote; " We firstly need to publicly expose their behaviour and then we must weed them out. We can't afford not to, because they are costing us our future."

The organisation that ensures scrutiny and accountability on behalf of the public, is ultimately the State Services Commission. That is where the public spotlight needs to focus.

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