12/06/2014 - 05:51

Public service bloated, inefficient

12/06/2014 - 05:51


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The size of Canberra’s bureaucracy and government financial support for some lobby groups can no longer be justified.

Public service bloated, inefficient

A contact with a strong interest in the defence sector related several surprising facts to me after last September's federal poll.

Among other things, he'd learned that a Department of Defence head count had showed 56,000 military personnel plus 20,000 administrative staff.

In contrast, he added, South Korea's army – not including navy, air force and marines – has more than 500,000 military personnel and just 3,000 back-office staff.

When I come across numbers like this I go searching for one of 20th century British naval historian Northcote Parkinson's enlightening laws of bureaucracy, two of which follow:

• 'an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals'; and

• officials make work for each other'.

Little wonder long-time advocate of smaller government, Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, invited Professor Parkinson, then teaching at San Francisco's Berkeley campus, to lecture on: "The precise reasons why the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge's original repainting crew of 14 grew to 72 once a labour-saving paint sprayer had been introduced."

Canberra is somewhat like that bridge, but probably worse.

Last month, for example, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison cut taxpayer funding to the Refugee Council of Australia, a lobby group that shadows government moves with regard to refugee and asylum seeker policy.

Leaving aside the reason – its rights, wrongs, or desirability of having such a council – behind that move it's interesting the minister didn't know his department actually funded this advocacy body.

"Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says he didn't know the country's peak refugee body was receiving taxpayer money from his immigration portfolio until after his own government's budget was published, at which point he moved immediately to axe the funding," one press report said.

That's not entirely surprising, particularly when one recalls recommendation 56 (there were 64) from the National Audit Commission.

"As well as the 194 principal bodies, there are around 700 other bodies including boards, committees and councils that the Commonwealth supports.

The commission recommends:

• each department reassess all bodies within its portfolio with a view to reducing their number and associated overheads, consistent with the criteria set out in Section 9.3; and

• all bodies, including boards, committees and councils be included on the central register of Commonwealth bodies.

The crucial word in that recommendation is "around", meaning the commission couldn't determine the exact number of boards, committees, and councils the nation's taxpayers are funding.

That's utterly disgraceful.

If a government-convened commission, which sat for several months, couldn't accurately report how many such quangos exist, it's hardly surprising a minister didn't know how many his department is bankrolling.

Canberra, quite frankly, is an unnecessarily costly, labyrinthine bureaucratic leviathan that probably even the late Professor Parkinson would struggle to comprehend.

It's simply oversized, with unknown numbers of officials multiplying subordinates to undertake needless work.

Moreover, most, if not all, of its bureaucratic entities are top-heavy.

Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies management analyst, Alexander Philipatos, says: "Since the early 1990s, top-level management has grown over 50 per cent (1,800 to 2,700) while middle management has more than doubled (18,500 to 41,700)."

A re-run of goings on in Defence, one could say.

"At the same time, entry level workers have declined 90 per cent," Philipatos continued.

"Salaries are also rising, particularly at the top.

"Base salaries for top-level managers have grown between 25 and 35 per cent in real terms since 2002, compared to just 15 per cent at lower levels, and 17 per cent in the private sector.

"The government today is employing far more managers in the public service, and paying those managers larger salaries."

And having all those managers hasn't helped.

Recall some of the buck-passing that's emanated from the Royal Commission into the Rudd government's disastrous $2.6 billion insulation batts scheme, which cost four lives.

Nor is it surprising to learn that those in the Senior Executive Service are so handsomely paid.

"Base salaries for SES employees ranged ­between $103,000 and $160,000 in 2002; by 2012, they ranged from between $172,000 and $283,000," Philipatos said.

"There are far more managers at the top drawing large salaries, and fewer at the bottom delivering services."

Clearly things have gone haywire in Canberra, like with the painting of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

And, as with that bridge, where labour-saving technology failed to trim the number of painters working to maintain the iconic structure (at the expense of that city's taxpayers), Canberra's abundance of back office/administrative staff has simply placed an enormous taxpayer-funded impost on hard-working Australians.


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