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14 September, 2006

That's Progress

Why are governments so stupid? And I don’t mean our elected representatives, I mean the administrators. Let’s face it politicians have no qualifications to govern and there is no particular expectation that they can do the job. They are recruited from the ranks of sports stars, small business owners, entertainers, lawyers, trades unionists, and the children of other politicians. It’s no wonder these people haven’t got a clue. But the civil servants have no excuse. They are professional administrators. Running the country, or the state, or the city is their job. They get trained for it, they make a career of it. So how come they are so bad at it?

I’ve had a lot to do with governments in various countries and at various levels and they are all as bad as each other. The waste of money is shocking – breathtaking! – and the sheer incompetence that causes it is endemic in every department I have ever worked with. (And will the person who just said, ‘Maybe that’s why they keep hiring you,’ please leave the room.) And why am I ranting about this just at this moment when, let’s face it, it goes on and on all the time? Well, it’s because a department I’m working for has just been merged with another in a restructuring program and a lot of people I’m now working with will probably lose their jobs as a result. So I’m feeling rather bitter.

Apparently this restructuring has been rumoured for well over a year but no-one who works here (including the management) had any idea it was really on the cards – until someone spotted an article about it on www.news.com.au yesterday afternoon saying the State Premier had just made the announcement!

Now I know that for most civil servants and politicians “change management” means keeping all your coins in a jar in the kitchen but doesn’t this strike you as unusually shabby? Something like 10,000 people are in this department and some of them will lose their jobs. Is it right that they should hear about it from the newspapers? And why are things like this so damned secret? It’s not like they’ll lose sales to the competition or take a hit on the share price. It’s the government, for Pete’s sake! Would it harm anyone if they discussed their plans openly?

Yet the secrecy has, in this case, as in so many others, added to the waste (along with depressing the already-rock-bottom morale). The team I’m working with builds the department’s websites – mostly its public site and its intranet. The intranet was rebuilt from scratch and re-launched about ten months ago (how old were those rumours?) and the team has recently been gearing up for a major set of improvements. In fact, we’re already three months into that project. Now we don’t know whether the intranet will be needed at all. It certainly looks as if the past two years’ work will be trashed as we merge with a larger department. Chances are, the team will be trashed too.

And why? What is the betting that the government has no objective measures of the performance of the various departments involved, or models of how performance will improve once the restructuring has happened, or how cost-effective it will be to disrupt the work of these departments – for months if not years – and what the costs to the state will be of throwing at least one bunch of people out of work? Think of all that organisational and service expertise that will be lost, the damage to the state’s image in the minds of these, mostly-young people, the customer relationships that will be damaged, the (hopefully temporary) drop in productivity and morale in what remains of the organisations, and the sheer cost of re-branding several departments, merging multiple different IT systems, rewriting business procedures – and learning them – and on and on and on.

Yet Queensland calls itself ‘the smart state’. I’d sure hate to se a stupid one!

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