Thursday, March 16, 2006

Garth George: Bungling of bloated state bureaucracy defies belief

It seems that the Government is finally waking up to something this column has been saying for years: that a bloated state bureaucracy is not only hugely and wastefully expensive, it becomes more inefficient the bigger it gets.

That most well-informed and perceptive of political commentators, John Armstrong, tells us that fiscal pressures have finally forced the Government to heed Treasury warnings and take not just a razor but a scalpel to public expenditure. I suggest what is really needed is a chainsaw.

According to the Treasury the number of public servants has increased by 27 per cent under this Labour Administration, while private-sector employment has risen only 20 per cent.

What is worse is that many of the extra staff have been put to work in expanded head offices rather than in the frontline delivery of services, and that while the increased staffing was intended to stop Government departments using expensive consultants, there has been no reduction in consultancy fees.

Which seems to indicate that the mandarins have inflated their little empires and egos by surrounding themselves with new legions of bean-counters and paper-shufflers while the country's vital services continue at best to show no improvement and at worst to deteriorate.

If you are in any doubt as to the chaos that reigns in Government departments, grab a copy of section A of last Friday's Herald.

On the front page is recorded the foregone conclusion of the trial of the farmer for manslaughter or, alternatively, criminal nuisance, after his 4-year-old daughter died when a farm bike rolled on her.

Common sense tells us that the case should never have been brought in the first place because it had no chance of success. But the junior policeman who laid the charges remained unrepentant and still reckoned the case might make farmers reassess the way they do things.

I doubt it.

There are two distinct societies in New Zealand - urban and rural - and among their many differences is an absence in rural society of the safety paranoia that afflicts so many urbanites.

But the policeman's views are typical of those with a bureaucratic mindset - hidebound tunnel vision and an inability to think outside the square coupled with an obsession with watching their backsides.

This is also illustrated elsewhere on Friday's front page. The Governor of the Reserve Bank refuses to lower the official cash rate in spite of mounting evidence that the economy is slowing, thus condemning tens of thousands of citizens to continued usurious mortgage interest rates.

Inside we have the story of the South African bloke who came with his family to New Zealand on a work permit to work in Whangarei, but moved to a better job in Auckland without informing the Immigration Service.

Immigration officials are demanding that the man and his family should be deported back to South Africa from whence they could reapply to come back here. I'm not joking.

There is no doubt that Gavin Penfold disobeyed the law, but the deportation penalty is out of all proportion to the seriousness of the misdemeanour. Surely a substantial fine would have the same salutary effect.

Trouble is the law, being an ass, probably has no provision for such a sensible course.

And yesterday, of course, we read of the Deportation Review Tribunal's extraordinary decision to let a convicted kidnapper and extortionist stay.

Then there's the story of the man who slit the throats of his 21-year-old daughter and two young grand-daughters, and who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, being employed to distribute Census forms.

And the story of police inaction in Dunedin after a 12-year-old girl was attacked by a knife-wielding 9-year-old. Two weeks after it happened the cops got off their bums after the Otago Daily Times got on their hammer.

And the story of the increase in the estimate for building four new prisons from $400 million to $890 million because a whole lot of obvious things were omitted when the initial estimate was made.

And the (continuing) story of the Child Youth and Family Service which has now been absorbed into the Ministry of Social Development because it cannot reliably report on the number and status of children in its care and does not know what works when dealing with at-risk children.

And the story of the irradiated fruit which is appearing in shops without stickers on the fruit to say it has been zapped.

Each and every one of these stories reveal bureaucratic bungling on a vast scale.

But for the most astonishing tale of them all you have to read Fran O'Sullivan's column in the Weekend Herald in which she relates her near-fatal experience with our health "service".

After being diagnosed as having gallstones and being dicked around for more than two years, suffering regular excruciating pain (I know, I've been there), she collapses and ends up in a hospital A&E department with a suppurating gall bladder which has to be removed - and fast.

But 20 minutes before she is due to go into theatre the surgeons informed her they had been instructed by "managers" not to proceed because the operation was deemed "elective surgery".

Fortunately for O'Sullivan, the surgeons more or less told the "managers" (who probably wouldn't know a carcinoma from a contusion) to get lost and operated anyway.

Which provides incontrovertible proof of my oft-stated conviction that the main reason the health service is in a state rapidly approaching chaos is that it is being run by lay businessmen and bureaucrats who haven't the slightest idea what they're doing, let alone what they need to do.

Bring on the chainsaws.


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