One of the minor benefits of the Covid lockdown is that it does seem to provide additional time for a bit of contemplation, reading and examining the world around us.
One of the things that seems to keep leaping out at me is the problem New Zealand has with bureaucracy. It was largely from this that lead to the farming fraternity supported by tradies and others to take to the streets.
The problem has a number of faces; on the positive side, it is meant to provide a benchmark of safety in the way we operate and to enable governments, national and local to get things done that society requires. The general public are both the user and funder of the services the bureaucrats provide and so therefore have every right to have an expectation that the services provided meet their needs.
Unfortunately, increasingly this appears not to be the case.
Almost every sector of society can come up with countless examples where, at least in the eyes of the user, they have been let down with services provided.
Some of these sectors are particularly vulnerable and listening to and reading of several examples lately, the disabled sector has leapt to the top of my list. With 1 in 4 of the population it is perhaps the largest sector affected also but list could cover most of society. Justice, education, health, transport, building, immigration, ACC are some that leap to mind but no doubt there are plenty of other areas that could be listed but this is enough to start.
According to the public service website, the State sector employed around 295,800 people and local government had around 52,200 employees, about 350,000 in total in 2017 (Chart below). Updates from the State Services Commission show that it has grown to 429,500 by 2020. It makes up about 18.5% of the nation’s workforce. At this size to quote the mantra of the 2019 mosque shootings “they are us”.
On top of these numbers are those employed as contractors etc. and the point being the public service is an integral part of society, so, how come there seems to be this disconnect between them and us?
It is worth saying that the disconnect seems to occur within entities as much as it does with those on the outside. I.e. nurse and health workers with the MoH and DHB’s and teachers with the MoE.
For the rural sector, and probably urban also, the rot set in at the local government level with the amalgamation of small councils into the large conglomerates we now have. The number of local bodies went from 454 in the early 1980’s to 86 by 1992. The reforms and the later Auckland amalgamation were unusual in that there was no provision for those affected to vote on whether or not they wished for amalgamation to occur. This lack of democratic approval omission has now been rectified as of 2012.
Before the reforms ratepayers generally had a far better knowledge of who both their councillors and their council employees were, certainly those in positions of authority, thereby being better able to hold them to account. The same cannot be said now.
The reasons for the amalgamations can be seen in the current move in the Waikato where an amalgamation is afoot. Here the CEO of the Waikato Chamber of Commerce, who is pro-amalgamation, said "Twelve replications, 12 governance bodies, 12 bureaucracies, 12 large cost-centres and 12 voices singing off separate song sheets." The Chamber wants the region to have a united and stronger voice but one involving less bureaucracy.
The reality seems to be that the reverse occurs.
At the time when the debate was occurring, Massey University Public Management Group director Andy Asquith said local government was not about efficiency, but about effectiveness and that big was not always best. "Business is fixated with profit and getting things done cheaply. Local government is not about any of those things. Local government is about engaging citizens in democracy and decision making." New Zealand compared to many other countries has a lack of local representation.
The Waikato situation aside, most of the combing of local bodies is and has been driven by Central Government. At the moment, there is the Three Waters Plan which proposes to bring 67 regional authorities into four. Likewise, there is the plan to bring the current 20 DHB’s into a centralised single entity.
In the case of the Three Waters programme, it appears most councils throughout the country are pushing back on the timelines allowed for consultation so both they and constituencies are better informed on the pros and cons. The problem which lies at the heart of what most sectors are experiencing appears to be that government and councils alike are not good at listening to what their relevant constituencies are saying and instead instigate programmes which they (Government and local bodies) know best. After all this, why (in the case of councils) they were set up in the first place so better expertise could be employed in a more complex world. Unfortunately, getting paid the ‘big bucks’ does not necessarily mean that the right decisions are made and certainly not what the constituencies want.
What causes this disconnect from the general public is likely to be complex.
Part of this must lie at where state and council employees consider whom they are accountable to.
With the detachment from ratepayers keeping the person above you in the organisation happy seems to be the priority and making sure no liability came come back to the organisation important.
Service to the community seems well down the list.
Whether our short election cycles (of 3 years) are part of the problem is difficult to ascertain but it must make it difficult for elected representative to get to know who’s who in their respective departments and areas of responsibility. This doesn’t however prevent government from going down their own philosophical pathways.
Wherever the problem lies it appears to be widespread and a major impediment to NZ Inc getting better benefit both from their productive sectors and for those reliant upon the State et al to provide the right services.
So farmers, while they got the headlines, are not the only ones feeling the effects of the bureaucratic culture that has permeated throughout New Zealand.
Can it change? Having seen earthquakes and pandemics seemingly to make the situations worse or at least no better, I have doubts. Unfortunately I cannot offer any ideas to improve the situation.