Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - Westacott, public service reform, defence with a dash of writing

I really don't know what happened to this week. It just seemed to vanish! Then I thought about it and realised that I had just been very busy, leaving lots of stories untold, threads untied. So bear with me this morning if I just meander, picking up threads, pointing to things that I noticed but didn't respond too at the time.

During the week a friend lost her job as part of the Queensland Government's public service cuts. She held a "temporary" position. These are the first to go. Why did I put temporary in inverted commas? One of the side effects of past cuts and restructures is the presence of a very large number of people occupying temporary positions. Some were brought in from outside to fill gaps left by previous organisational changes. Others hold substantive positions, but haven't occupied them for years, constantly shifted around. I know of one case where a person has been acting in positions well above the nominal position held for five years.

The problem is that when you get cuts of the type we have seen in Victoria, Queensland and, to a somewhat lesser extent, NSW, a domino effect sets in. Fred or Freda is told that they must return to their substantive position because the agency no longer has the funds to employ them in their current role. That substantive position was long ago filled on a temporary basis. Now the person held against the substantive position has to move. They may exit stage left if they are a contractor or temporary employee. Alternatively, they may have to move back to their substantive position, thus triggering another set of moves. Replicate this process in the thousands, and you get a feel for what can happen.

I must say that I have been quite astonished at the degree of staffing instability that I have observed.

I know that I have written a lot about the need to change current approaches to public policy and administration or risk continued degradation in performance. I mention it now because Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, has mounted a stinging attack on current approaches, calling for reform. You will find some of the coverage here, here, here, here, here, here and here. I don't have time to respond properly today, but I have actually thought of Ms Westacott herself as part of the problem!

Changing direction, Belshaw's World returns to Express in new form simply records my pleasure at my return as a columnist in the Armidale Express. My first scene setting column will appear Monday. The need to write for a print environment under a weekly deadline created a different focus and discipline and also brought me a different audience and a different form of interaction.

Sometimes I wish that people would not say things!   US Defence analyst Edward Luttwak is a case in point. I quote from the start of John Garnaut's article:

AUSTRALIA has been quietly building a regional defence coalition to restrain China's increasingly ''aggressive'' and ''autistic'' international behaviour, an influential adviser to the Pentagon says.

Edward Luttwak bluntly contradicts Australian and US denials that they see China as a threat or want to contain its rise.

''Australians view themselves as facing a strategic threat,'' he writes in his coming book, The Rise of China v The Logic of Strategy.

I don't write regularly on trade, foreign or defence policy, but over time I have traced out the strategic challenges facing Australia and the nature of responses. My problem with Mr Luttwak is that he has taken one element, defence, and made that central, Of course China is a potential strategic threat to Australia, but it is not the only one. Further, Australia's evolving relationships with Asia are a complicated multi-faceted web requiring adroit management. It doesn't help us to have one part of that web blown up as the central strand.

My post Visit a bookshop week starts 22 October - spread the word has garnered some initial support. In a comment, Jody wrote: "I came here via Ramana. I'm a writer, and of course, I do love bookstores. But, mostly, I also just love BOOKS. I find the library as compelling as bookstores, and even as a writer hoping to make a little money, the library sales in the U.S. can be significant."

Earlier in September in Nicholas, Fisher Library & a sense of sadness, I recorded my reactions to Sydney' University's Fisher Library book clean out. Our reactions to these things are always personal. I have been trying to work out how to explain this in, to use modern jargon, not helicopter terms, but at the personal micro-level. I use the new technology all the time, I rely on it to do the things that I do. Increasingly, however, there are things that I can no longer do as a consequence of the impact of the technology. It is those things and the possible responses that I am focusing on.

It's a beautiful day here in Sydney. The lawnmower next door has just started up. I fear that I must leave you for more domestic activities.


In a comment, Rod wrote:

2. regarding the disposal of old books - I recommend looking into the consolidation of several libraries into into the Dorothy Hill Library at UQ. During the process ironically vast amounts of irreplaceable material was destroyed... including the private library of Dorothy Hill herself that was donated to UQ when she died. The UQ library webpage uses the typical excuses and apologies:

The link is worth looking at, for this appears to have been a fairly monumental stuff-up that led to the loss of irreplaceable material. Now, and at considerable expense, the Library is struggling to rebuild the destroyed collection.

I recognise the problems that libraries face in coping with a growing volume of publications and, at the same time, finding the funds to invest in the provision of new on-line services. Library capital costs used to be driven by costs of buildings plus cost of acquiring collections. Now you have to add in the cost of acquiring and then maintaining the new technology. All this makes culling of the physical collection inevitable.

I accept that. However, in the process, many libraries ignore a simple and most basic question: is the culled material available on-line? If not, the disposal or destruction means permanent loss.

The problem is most acute with what we might call niche material. This is rarely available on line and is also less used; the second is important for it is the less used material that is often the first to meet the culler's axe.

Libraries have multiple roles. At present, the role of custodian of human thought is completely subservient to that of service provision to the immediate generation of users.

I see this all the time. The interests I have, the history of New England is an example, are niche interests. The key material that I use is rarely available on-line and, indeed, only partially available in the big libraries. That makes the preservation of the material that is there more important. The destruction that I recorded in Nicholas, Fisher Library & a sense of sadness is not just a personal loss, but a loss of another part of history. As I wrote at the time: "In throwing it out to clear space, Sydney University's Fisher Library took away another little piece of our own history. See why I'm sad? "

There isn't an answer. Were it not for the fact that I have been buying New England books for a long time and now have a collection of over four hundred, I could not write some of the things that I do. We may live in an information rich age, but it is also an age of information destruction. The people who make the decisions about what to keep and what to destroy have their own concerns. They have a job to do, targets to meet that focus on the greatest need as defined. The fact that they sometimes destroy the very things that I am most interested in is just collateral damage, an incidental result.  


Rod said...

I must comment on two of your musings.

1. Your friend who has lost her position because she was 'temporary' is something I can understand. I was employed about 10 years ago in a junior role with the NSW public service on a 3 month temporary contract, the project had federal funding for 5 years and I had my contract extended for another year. At this time there was one of the structural reforms going on so all temporary staff had to go. They had to train another staff member who was a permanent and more senior staff to do the job... the project continues on to this day.

2. regarding the disposal of old books - I recommend looking into the consolidation of several libraries into into the Dorothy Hill Library at UQ. During the process ironically vast amounts of irreplaceable material was destroyed... including the private library of Dorothy Hill herself that was donated to UQ when she died. The UQ library webpage uses the typical excuses and apologies:

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Rod and thanks. Your first comment is pretty indicative of just what happens. I have brought your second comment up in the main post.