Thursday 18 April 2024

A question for you all on those sackings [updated]


At times like this you might ask yourself:
"What would Sir Humphrey do?"

Imagine you're Sir Humphrey. Head of a government department.

Now, imagine you minister has issued instructions to sack a given number of pen-pushers in your department. Simply to sack a given number, without real guidance as to whom. Leaving it to you to decide on whom the axe will fall.

So, here's the question: do you sack the folk who are most effective and most needed?

Or are those to whom you give the DCM the least useful, most surplus-to-requirements?

I'll give you a moment to think about it ...

Do you have your answer?

Simple, right. Because every Sir Humphrey worth his salt is going to sack the most useful staff, not the least useful.

Two reasons for that.

The first is that you don't like being told how to run your department by a politician whose arse is only just warm in their seat, and who will probably be gone at the next reshuffle.

The second is that you don't get to be a Sir Humphrey by not ensuring that your department keeps growing. While the politician wants a headline full of big numbers getting their pink slip, your motivation is very different. You're a natural empire-builder, and you didn't join the bureaucracy to oversee its shrinking. So it's in your own self-interest to turn a small department into a large one, a large one into an even large one, and (when the axes are swinging) to at least maintains its numbers.

So the best way to keep the numbers up when you've been told to make them go down is to ensure you will get back any positions you do disestablish. So you sack the most useful not the least, and you sit back and watch the clamour as the useful things they were doing are no longer being seen to be done — and then (in the fullness of time) you humbly and graciously accede to the next minister's request to bring them all back again.

The lesson here for any minister is not that these departments don't need need to be savaged — they do, urgently, even just back to the still-bloated pre-Covid levels would be a start — [UPDATE: and, obviously, removing whole bureaucracies is ultimately necessary] but that to simply issue an "across-the board" demand like this will probably not do it. You can't simply call for blanket cuts like this without micro-management of the Sir Humphreys who are doing the cutting. (Doesn't look like that's happening.)

Otherwise, as the experience from the 1980s demonstrated — and this month's education minister acknowledged this morning — the sackees will be back quicksmart as "consultants." And they will cost us all much more.

Let's hope I'm wrong.

UPDATE: I'm far from a fan of the oleaginous Matthew Hooton, but he does know where the bureaucratic bodies are buried, and has ideas about increasing the number of corpses. He begins:

What we cannot trust is the Wellington bureaucracy or its local politicians and media to take seriously the need for radical downsizing of the state after its extraordinary explosion this century.
    So far, mandarins have identified just 3000 roles for the chop, merely taking the bureaucracy back to its size last year.
That will only save in the order of one billion dollars — a lot o money to you and me, but only about one-seventh of the sum it needs. 

So something more aggressive is needed.
Much greater ambition is needed, including abolishing whole departments and functions, and urgently getting on top of superannuation, health and debt-servicing costs, now all ballooning.
    The savings programme has so far been poorly handled, with not a hint of strategic leadership from the Beehive. Asking bureaucrats to find savings is to pass control over the Government’s operational priorities from ministers to mandarins.
On which, see above. 

So how could cutting be done? Put the onus on departments to prove they're worth keeping, he says:
Each department should first be required to write a business case for why it should even exist, against what the Government says it wants to achieve – by which more is needed than nine bullet points.
    Some agencies should find that easy, like the police, courts, corrections and, right now, Treasury’s debt management office. If others struggle, so much the better for taxpayers, present and future.
    For agencies that pass that first hurdle, ministers would then demand business cases for each of their existing functions – again starting with why they should even exist, and against clearly stated but substantive Government objectives.
    Some agencies may even be able to make cases for some of those functions to be funded more.
    It’s even possible the exercise would identify gaps in the Government’s functions.
    But most likely it would reveal multiple bureaucracies tripping over one another to do the same alleged “work."
    Just who is primarily responsible for climate-change policy in New Zealand? The Climate Change Commission? The Ministry for the Environment? The Parliamentary Commission for the Environment? Or the Environmental Protection Agency that runs the emissions trading scheme? Could the Prime Minister or the agencies themselves tell us were they asked?
    The bleating from public-sector unions, the Labour Party and the rest of the left-wing establishment about the coalition rolling back less than one year’s growth in the Wellington bureaucracy should be entirely ignored.
    The public debate should start from the opposite direction. Just what would be the harm to the rest of the country were Willis to proceed with [shutting down Wellington permanently]? Once those harms are identified, a rigorous case could be made for what parts of the Wellington bureaucracy should be allowed to survive.


MarkT said...

What’s the answer then, if you’re a minister trying to do the right thing?

Peter Cresswell said...

What to do now ?
->Choose which departments in your aegis need to go in toto, and get them gone.
-> Micro-manage the other sackings.
But that work should have been done before.
They've had six years to work out which departments and positions need to go — to 'have a little list,' as Gilbert and Sullivan put it. Or a large one. Hand that list to HoDs when you arrive, and then make sure it's done.
But it looks like they haven't drawn up one themselves, so they've had to outsource by command the decision-making on sackings to department heads — all of whom have the opposite incentive.
It's not good enough.

Tom Hunter said...

It's not good enough.

Every suggestion that I've seen on right-wing NZ blogs over the years about simply eliminating Ministries and Departments, has been met with dismissive guffaws from National Party supporters and other "moderate centrists".

So none of this is a surprise to me, as I'm sure it's not to you or other readers here.

As a result I've come to the sad conclusion that NZ is simply going to have to enter into something akin to Argentina's decline (but hopefully not as bad) before we find our Milei and Afuera!

Tom Hunter said...

Oh, and this also, which I'm also sure you're all familiar with...

“Minister, we don’t measure our success by results but by activity and the activity is considerable and productive. Those 500 people are seriously overworked. Of course the full establishment should be 650.“