Flat White

Are you being served?

24 September 2019

5:00 AM

24 September 2019

5:00 AM

Whether it’s federal or state, health or education, the ATO or ASIC – dealing with bureaucracy is a notorious source of frustration for Australians. And us Aussies love nothing more than regaling their mates with yarns about our tussles with bureaucracy: it’s basically croc hunting for Camry drivers. Yet, jokes aside, the public service is an important arm of government with talented individuals battling an overwhelming culture of underachievement where there is a capacity allowance to calculate your flexi-time and where producing self-serving regulation is carried out with Olympic level aptitude.

In a recent speech, Scott Morrison declared that there has been a ‘trust deficit’ in recent years in Western democracies between people and the public service and that Australia expects more from its public servants — ‘more delivery, more momentum, more focus and getting on with the job of serving Australians and making their lives easier’. It is not unreasonable for the Prime Minister to expect the public service to serve the public who pays its wages. Nor is it unreasonable for the public to expect the public service to focus on efficiency, deliverables and getting stuff done – like the rest of us do in our jobs.

But instead, what we see is stuff like this…

This week the Queensland state government offered its public servants a one-off payment of $1250 plus a 2.5 per cent pay rise. Well, that’s lovely and all – but what’s the extra chip-in for? Are they required to be more productive or is the state ALP just shoring up votes ahead of the next election? In Western Australia, public servants are being given an extra day off, just for giggles. This is a cost borne by the taxpayer without any performance dividend and if you live west of the border, you’re paying for it. And who is paying for the taxpayers’ reciprocal day off – well, no one, because you don’t get one.

What could be a better example of public service tone-deafness and community disconnect than requiring drought-stricken farmers to fill out a 100 plus page application form to help put food on the table. It shows a total lack of understanding for how the other half live – you know, the people they are supposed to be serving. It’s so far beyond careless, it’s well on the way to immoral. This is only matched by anyone who has tried to secure funding for an aged care, in-home support package. What should be an empathetic and focused system which allows the elderly to retain some dignified independence, is instead the Hotel California of bureaucracy. It’s an indecipherable, multilayered, delay ridden process where waiting periods of over a year are well documented.

And if you run a small business, navigating bureaucracy makes the Hunger Games look like a holiday. It’s a constant dance of filling out forms, paying fees, and interpreting websites and practice guides. And then when you can’t work it out, trying to get someone with subject-area knowledge on the phone is a whole other challenge. This administrative and regulatory time-suck leaves you with a foul taste in your mouth, particularly, if it comes shortly after cutting a hefty cheque to the ATO.

As a matter of course, public servants receive permanent tenure, are almost impossible to sack despite non-performance, and receive an impressive 15.4 per cent (federal) superannuation. These benefits are almost unheard of in the private sector where the standard is: perform or leave, three strikes and you’re out, and 9.5 per cent superannuation. You could almost stomach the discrepancy if the public service ran with Singaporean efficiency.

So I ask: is it reasonable for public servants to be entitled to such plump employment conditions when the people who pay their wages, the private sector net-taxpayers, do not?

Unfortunately, our public service is reminiscent of ‘Yes, Minister’ on growth hormone but without the gags. It’s a myriad of rules, delays, general unhelpfulness, and where the people paying the bills are made to feel like the world’s greatest inconvenience. Not only has government continued to encroach on our private lives but they have stifled, interfered and tut-tutted at every step of the way.

While public servants continue to press for wage rises and increased benefits unconnected to improvements in productivity, private sector wages have stagnated. Wage stagnation is due to many factors, including a slowing economy and inflexible industrial relations rules.

That’s a discussion for another day, but for our purposes, the pertinent point is that the public sector should follow the private sector on wage growth and not the other way around. The health of the economy should inform the degree to which public sector wages increase – after all, it is only fiscally responsible to increase a cost base, if the revenue base also has a comparable bump.

In the current economic climate, some public sector restraint is appropriate. Its demands cannot be disconnected from economic sustainability and the idea of ‘reward for effort’. It would otherwise be insulting to those doing it tough outside the bubble.

Where to from here? The chasm between community expectations and the performance of the public service can only be bridged by the implementation of real accountability linked to real deliverables. Fiefdoms need to be dismantled, non-performers shown the door, timeliness enforced, bonuses linked to productivity, and public servants reminded they are there to serve – not be indulged.

If we don’t expect more from our public service, we will continue to get what we have thus far tolerated. It’s now time for the Prime Minister and his ministry, many who are ex-staffers who already know the best and worse of the bureaucracy, to follow up those words with action.

Caroline Di Russo is a lawyer, businesswomen and unrepentant nerd.

Illustration: Australian Public Service/Facebook.

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