Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Parkinson's law of government and associated matters part 2 - Mr Abbott's bludgeon

Continuing from Parkinson's law of government and associated matters part 1, I need to make an important qualification. To the degree I add value to the on-line discourse, it lies in large part in my ability to make objective comments. Crikey, to use an old Australian phrase, that's hard!

In my last post, I observed that the Australian Government's refugee policy had made relations with Djakarta somewhat fractious. That has continued: Tony Abbott warns Jakarta on refusal to accept asylum-seeker boats. Mr Abbott has a point on search and rescue zones, although I'm not sure of the wisdom of expressing it in just that way. This was an Indonesian reaction yesterday to the continuing stoush: RI rejects Australian dictated solutions on people smuggling.

I am not quite sure where we go from here. Presumably Australia can refuse to provide assistance in Indonesia's search and rescue zone, Indonesia can continue to refuse to accept boat people back. Indonesia can also retaliate in other ways. Beef imports, for example. In all, a bit of a mess.

Recruitment Blues

As part of the Government's attempts to reduce Commonwealth public service numbers to meet its 12,000 reduction target, the Commonwealth has limited intake of new graduates and announced that contractors will not have their contracts extended unless a very special case can be made. This affects the national research organisation CSIRO in particular.

Both freezes on recruitment and termination of contractors are fairly standard Australian governments' first stage responses to a stated desire to reduce the number of public servants. I say governments plural because it applies at all levels. Sadly, it doesn't work very well. This is not a political comment, merely an empirical observation.

The public service has to do a certain level of work determined by what government demands. Yes, with improved productivity fewer people can do more work, although this raises another set of issues. To my minds, the commonly expressed nostrums about public sector productivity and ways to improve it are just that, nostrums. Yes, if you cut functions you can cut staff. But otherwise the work has to go on and that means people.

Blunt, bludgeon cuts of this type have several effects beyond immediate morale and performance issues. If you cut entry level recruitment for long enough, gaps start opening up at the bottom of agencies. The pipeline that allows you to fill new higher level positions from within diminishes. This is compounded by restrictions on lateral recruitment. Normally, and this is why there are so many contractors, agencies fill urgent gaps on a temporary basis via the contractor marketplace. However, in this type of freeze, that's not possible for the contractors themselves are going.

Suddenly, the cut backs go critical. Agencies start telling Ministers they can't do things. They announce, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics did under the Howard Government, that key services are being withdrawn. Forced recruitment now begins.

In the past with limitations on lateral recruitment and especially contact staff, this manifested itself in an explosion in entry level recruitment. Today, it manifests especially as an explosion in the number of contractors since this gives a much faster fix. Now the base is being laid for the next round of cuts.


This post has proved remarkably difficult to finish because the swirling tide of events keeps overtaking my writing! Ms Gillard is selling her house in Melbourne, Mr Rudd has suddenly resigned from Parliament, the dispute with Indonesia continues (here, here) and the new Parliament looks just as fractious as the old despite the Prime Minister's somewhat quaintly expressed hope that everybody will turn over a new leaf.

Meanwhile, action and discussion on economic and other policy issues continues in the middle of some quite remarkable lecturing through the financial press. Events seem to have brought out the ideologue in all of us!

I admit defeat in terms of what I had wanted to do in this overview post. Instead, I am going to chunk the material into more bite size bits for future use. 

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