Friday, 7 December 2007

DOCS overboard

Here in NSW, it's not children overboard, it's DOCS overboard. DOCS is the unfortunate department tasked with trying to put a lid on useless, violent, disinterested, drug-addled and delinquent parents. It's a thankless task. They should just rename it "SHOIS" - Sink Hole Of Impossible Situations.

People being nasty to their children is nothing new. Dickens had no shortage of horrible things to write about in this regard. However, our attitude to how children ought to be treated has changed markedly since modern sanitation and health care enabled most of them to get through childhood without being carried off by typhoid or diptheria or some other nasty disease that we know so little about today.

The idiots in charge seem to have taken the "no child shall live in poverty" type ideal and applied it to child rearing. Except that the new mantra is "no child shall suffer any physical pain whatsoever". That's a bit of a tall order. Smacking a naughty kid in the supermarket these days is sufficient to have the new guardians of the moral order descend on you like madmen.

Apart from that, I can see what has gone wrong with DOCS. All organisations lose efficiency once they expand beyond a certain size. Their headcount has ballooned amazingly in recent years as moral panic has set in, and once an organisation reaches a certain size, the extra people create smaller and smaller amounts of marginal output. At some point, you might even go into people creating negative marginal output (management speak for people who are a waste of space).

For instance, let's say you have 100 front line staff. You might require one HR/payroll person to support them. However, if you grow to 500, you suddenly have 5 or 6 HR/payroll people plus a manager and a secretary. And if my experience is any indicator, back office functions tend to swell much faster than front office functions when money is poured into an organisation. Areas like Finance, IT, IR, HR, legal/corporate counsel, property, motor vehicle management, security, reception etc will add headcount like crazy, and those people tend to be more expensive than the frontline people they are supporting.

Let's say you start with 100 frontline people and 1 accountant - a ratio of 1:100. Let's also imagine that each one of these people, frontline and backend, costs you $50,000. The expense ratio is 1:1.

By the time you have 500 frontline staff, the staff ratio will no longer be 1:100 - it will be 1:50 or less, because Finance will argue that all these extra people are "creating a lot more work". On top of that, the accountants will now be paid $100,000 a year because all the extra work involves a lot more responsibility. When the agency had a budget of $50 million, the accountant was paid $50,000. But now that the budget is $250 million, the beancounters will make a plausible argument that they should be paid more because the budget is bigger.

It usually works.

So the expense ratio of frontline to backend has also moved from 1:1 to 1:2. If you apply this right across the organisation, you can see that a doubling of the budget will never flow through to a doubling of front line staff. If you are lucky, frontline numbers might increase 50% - and that's only if the CEO is really tight with the money. Don't forget that because of an expanding headcount in head office, the first thing the CEO will do is move to a bigger (and flasher) office building, incorporating of course a much nicer office for the now much more important CEO.

The other thing is the decrease in quality. When you have a small organisation of say 100 people, you can be pretty sure that those people are dedicated and good at their jobs. Small organisations tend to have good morale (in my experience) because everyone knows everyone else and you can talk to the CEO over a coffee if you are having problems. It's a "no shit" organisation, because there is no pulling the wool over the eyes of management - they are too close to the action.

If a place expands quickly, quality control tends to go out the window when hiring people. Management becomes focuses on hiring, not on running the business. Problems don't get dealt with. The personal touch is lost. Many managers fail to make the transition from a small, hands-on, no-meeting environment to a beauracracy. The paper pushers take charge and push out the hands on, make it happen people.

Morale goes down the shitter. Policies and procedures developed by desk pushers in head office extinguish the last vestiges of common sense.

I'm sure that's happened to DOCS. I reckon most of the money that has been pumped into the place has been spent on computer systems, admin staff, new offices and policy writers, and very little spent on getting hard nosed people out into the slums. Even less would have been spent on supporting those people when they make tough decisions.

The other thing that shits me is the whole fostering system.

If your kids get taken away, there should be no way you should get them back until you can prove that you can support them.

That is:

  • Held down a job for 12 months
  • Passed a weekly drug/booze test for 12 months
  • Got some savings in the bank
  • Dumped the useless, drug-addled boyfriend
If you can't do that, forget it. Kids stay with the foster parents. Parents are supposed to love their kids. If you don't love them enough to make some serious changes to your life, changes which will ensure that you look after them properly, then you don't really love them. So you don't deserve to have them back.

I am a hard head in this regard because I am a big softie.

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