Thursday, 22 January 2009

Change and hope

Oops, you say, didn't you get that the wrong way round?


If I'm going to say something about the current Obama-frenzy, I might as well get it over and done with. J taped part of the inauguration, and I listened to about 30 seconds of it. I then tuned it out. The gist of his speech seemed to be this:

"If we throw smarter people and more money at government, it will solve all our problems".

I beg to differ. But before I start, was his inauguration longer than the wedding of Charles and Di? It seemed to go on forever.

To "change and hope."

I spent a few years working in the public sector. I started near the bottom, and being a reasonably smart cookie, I moved up through the ranks. At various times, I either worked directly for a chief executive (two of them), or was at most three rungs removed from the top banana. I saw life at the bottom of the heap, experienced life in the middle, and dealt with board-level stuff quite extensively for a while. I even got some experience working closer to a Minister than most pubes get.

In short, I got around.

I met some very smart people, including a bonafide rocket scientist who was a genius. I met some incredibly hard working people. I met people who were a cross between a library and a who's who in terms of their knowledge of public service history and who did what. I dealt with budgets in lean times and propserous times. I hired a lot of people, fired the odd one and did my best to motivate people to deliver good results at low cost.

I also met my fair share of dummies, lazy-arsed bastards, psychopaths and axe-wielding maniacs.

But on the whole, the cross section of the public sector is no different to say the cross section of all the people in the supermarket that you last visited, or the pub that you last had a drink at. Public servants are no smarter or dumber on average than people working in most companies in the private sector. Yes, there are some companies that work very hard at recruiting exceptionally bright and talented people, and they can afford to pay enough to attract those people. But if you take someone on $60k in the public sector and match them up against someone earing $60k in the private sector, they'll be much the same in general.

This is one of the reasons when I laugh at the idea of public service attracting the "brightest and best". The public sector already has a good share of those people. Most of them are beavering away, working terrible hours and making hurculean efforts to try and get the public sector to deliver reasonable services with some level of value for money.

Most of them are failing.

It's not for want of trying, or lack of money. Although they'll swear they are all about to expire from poverty, many public sector agencies and departments are awash with money. The problem is that the budget process means it is unevenly distributed, so that within one department, group A could be drowning in cash, unable to spend it, and group B is shivering around a fire made up of lumps of coal collected from passing coal trains.

All departments could free up a lot of cash straight away through the simple expedient of sacking people - who are expensive. But they'll never do that. If DOCS needs to buy a car so that field staff can actually visit children at risk, but they have no money to do so, instead of getting rid of a few useless mouths and freeing up the money, they'll keep the useless mouths on and all the field staff will spend their days sitting in the office, drinking tea and eating biscuits and moaning about the uselessness of their management.

Throwing more smart people into the system won't help either. The trouble with smart people is that most of them like working hard and they love a challenge. Government is forever throwing up challenges, and the smart people react like a shark to a bleeding penguin. They want in, they want action, they want to solve this problem. And that problem. And this problem as well, and that one over there, and....... but there are too many problems in the world for even the biggest government to solve them all. They're like hyperactive chipmunks with a can of Coke.

Smart people generally lack filters. The public sector desperately needs a big set of filters, where they look at problems and sort them like sheep at a muster. We kill this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and we'll consider keeping this one to work on.

If the public sector/government used that sort of process, they might actually have a hope in hell of delivering some of the things that they set out to achieve. I like to think of McDonalds. McDonalds makes no pretence about serving fancy food, or having a wide menu. They offer simple food, generally bland in taste and appearance, that is cheap, quick and easy to prepare and serve. The Quarter Pounder shows the genius of simplicity. A meat patty, plastic cheese, three slices of pickle and a squirt of ketchup. Horrible, somehow delicious, and the same in Ulan Bator and Hooflungdung.

The public sector is anything but McDonalds, and it's that way because the people working in it and the people driving it from the top don't want it to be McDonalds. McDonalds is not seen as challenging enough for smart people - who wants to deliver bland, boring products that never change? Smart people want to deliver smart, sexy, forever changing products - just like the mobile phone market.

I will try and get to "change and hope".

In my time, I saw a lot of "change and hope". Orders would come down for a change to be made, and we'd hope that it would work.

It generally didn't. We might get someway towards our target, but then we would change again, and hope that this time it would work.

I spent some time working with a bloke who swore that in his career, he could list 30 distinct organisational reshuffles and reporting structure changes. Many of them simply reversed an earlier change. By the time I started working with him (the result of another change), he had given up all hope. We parted ways soon after, thanks to another restructure.

I am cynical about all this "change and hope" guff, because hope is not a substitute for action. It is not a subsitute for failing to think through the consequences of your actions. Praying that it will be "alright on the night" is not a recipe for success.

"Change and hope" really means a bunch of air-head, power-mad lefties running around trying to make the world a better place by throwing scads of money at people who have consistently failed at almost everything they have done in the past - the public service - and hoping that they will get it right this time.

That's not hope and change.

That's insanity.

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