Beware those incestuous, unaccountable empire-building public servants | Daily News

Beware those incestuous, unaccountable empire-building public servants

This piece is based a real story in which a revenue authority in a province made a hash of taxing an individual, on appeal proceeded to threaten and black mail the individual into paying within 24 hours, took away his option to pay by installments and denied him the right to “comply and complain”.

The Commissioner having heard the citizens appeal proceeded to threaten him with further tax notices to cover up for the misdeeds of her Deputy Commissioner, Senior assessor and Junior assessor. This is one reason politicians treat public servants as trash and do their utmost to keep them securely under their thumb. In this era, we automatically suspect politicians of virtually everything, so the word “independent” has become totemic in public life.

The flip side by technically making them independent through the 19th Amendment we have an unaccountable monster, lacking in many instances in the required specialized knowledge for some distinctive specialised functions, possibly largely untrained and filled with corrupt practices including of blackmailing citizens into submission. Essentially a law unto themselves and wholly unaccountable. The citizen who suffered is no pushover. He in fact serves by Presidential appointment on another Commission and has decades of rights related work. The story of what he would do next to regain his rights awaits further developments.

The old public administration

The watchwords were efficiency and effectiveness in the management of budgetary and human resources. It relied on centralized control, set rules and guidelines, separated policymaking from implementation, and employed a hierarchical organisational structure (Osborne, 2006).

The central features of this model:

* A separation between politics and elected politicians on the one hand and administration and appointed administrators on the other;

* Administration is continuous, predictable and rule-governed;

* Administrators are appointed on the basis of qualifications, and are trained professionals;

* There is a functional division of labour, and a hierarchy of tasks and people;

* Resources belong to the organisation, not to the individuals who work in it;

* Public servants serve public rather than private interest.

Challenges the public servant could do without

The Canadian Government publishes their Public Service Employee Survey online. It includes a series of questions on ‘organisational performance’ that ask employees about those things that affect the quality of their work.

A recent survey by the Guardian of 3,700 UK public service workers paints a depressing picture of the challenges faced by public service workers in the age of austerity. It highlights how long hours and stress have become a fact of life for many.

Michael Lipsky’s epic work on Street Level Bureaucrats is another useful source. He points to the systemic nature of the challenges faces by public servants and how, as a result, life for many workers is simply about getting by. For Lipsky the coping mechanisms that workers employ are ‘basic to survival’.

Another point of reference is the well-known Whitehall study of health in the Civil Service. This study found that men in lower grades have three times the mortality rates of those in higher grades.

The purpose is to identify those things that get in the way of being a public servant so that thought can be given to how they might be reduced or avoided.

1. Work overload

Over demand and casework overload are facts of life for many public servants. The Canadian staff survey found that nearly 50% of public sector workers were having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources. At the same time 25% felt that they were being asked to work to unreasonable deadlines.

2. Lack of control

A lack of discretion over their work can leave the public servant frustrated when they can see what needs to be done but are prevented from doing it. Unnecessarily detailed procedures or interference from superiors — what is known as micro management — are both aspect of this challenge. Risk aversion on the part of organisations provides another dimension to these battles. Risk taking can be an important aspect of discretion for the public servant.

3. Unnecessary work

What many would label ‘bureaucracy’. Unnecessary work is required by the organisation but it contributes nothing, either directly or indirectly, to the public good from the perspective of the public servant.

4. Unhelpful reforms

From the perspective of the public servant, however, not all reform is helpful. The first problem is the relentless nature of reform initiatives. From the public servant point of view reform can be seem like just a series of additional meetings to attend and reports to complete with no obvious benefit for the work they are doing.

5. Silo working

Silo working is what happens when departments or organisations focus on protecting their own position and role rather than the needs of the people that they are working for. From the public servant’s point of view this makes it harder to get things done. Good work done in the field can be undone back at home base where commitment and understanding from decision makers is lacking.

6. Lack of recognition

The problem of lack of recognition is not just about the public servant getting personal appreciation for good work well done. More generally public servants often get a poor deal in the way that they are portrayed in the media.

8. Uncertainty

Uncertainty in the work place makes it difficult for the public servant to focus on what needs to be done or to plan meaningfully. A further cause of uncertainty is emergencies.

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Singapore’s model of public management

The Singapore model of public management is premised on meritocratic principles in recruitment and promotion, a strict bureaucratic hierarchy and administrative impartiality. Success in achieving high scores on international governance indicators and sustained economic growth for almost 50 years largely derives from four policies adopted in the early post-Independence period:

* Comprehensive reform of the Singapore Civil Service;

* Strong and enforceable anti-corruption measures;

* Decentralization of the Public Service Commission;

* Payment of competitive market salaries to attract and retain the best candidates in the public service (Quah, 2013).

It selectively introduced New Public Management reforms by adopting market-based principles through privatization and the creation of arm’s-length public corporations, the adoption of new management models and e-government techniques, and the introduction of greater responsiveness in public service delivery (Lee and Haque, 2006; Sarker, 2006).

The government established PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) as a specialist unit in 1995 to nurture high standards of public service excellence and responsiveness, and to foster an environment of innovation and continuous improvement. The government also proved adept in foresight and long-term contingency planning through the creation of the Centre for Strategic Futures Group in 2009, which seeks to promote whole-of-government thinking on key strategic challenges through engagement across departments and with external stakeholders (Ho, 2012).

While recognizing the specific circumstances of Singapore as a wealthy city-state, there are some lessons which may have wider application for developing countries: the importance of integrity and strong anti-corruption measures; meritocracy expressed through selective recruitment of the best talent; results-orientation in which pay and promotion reflect individual performance and contribution to innovation and policy outcomes; and competitive salaries for the public service to mitigate the risk of corruption.

There are also more specific institutional reforms that offer additional lessons, including operational autonomy for Boards and public sector corporations while retaining regulatory oversight and policy direction within central agencies; rewarding individual and organizational performance through incentives and recognition; a practice of continuous innovation; and leadership by example (Saxena, 2011).

There is a compelling case for drawing on elements of the New Public Service approach to ensure that public sector reforms are grounded in the interests and needs of citizens rather than driven by the technocratic impetus of public officials or the self-interested imperatives of elected politicians.

Placing citizens at the forefront of public service requires a fundamental change in mindset on the part of public officials, in which reforms are directed to changing values and behaviours as much as enhancing administrative capacity, centred on efforts to deepen motivation and instill a public service ethos. In addition, such efforts would require a very different approach to recruitment and professional development and stand a greater chance of success in political environments that cultivate accountability and transparency and expose public officials to political oversight and responsiveness to citizens. 


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