Short-term gain, but at what cost?

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

The par­tial sale of state as­sets may have dom­i­nated the po­lit­i­cal land­scape for the past 18 months, but ul­ti­mately the ways that peo­ple work within state or­gan­i­sa­tions could prove even more im­por­tant than who owns the work place.

In­stead of of­fer­ing a sta­ble ca­reer path, retaining their in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory and keep­ing their tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise in-house, gov­ern­ment de­part­ments are now rou­tinely out­sourc­ing their work to con­sul­tants and to short-term con­trac­tors.

Many are – tem­po­rar­ily – on higher wage rates than the peo­ple they re­place, but with none of the ben­e­fits, such as parental leave or sick leave.

Re­port­edly, the es­ti­mated bill for public ser­vice con­sul­tancy is run­ning at about $180 mil­lion to $200 mil­lion a year.

The is­sue in­volved is more ba­sic than merely the num­ber of job losses in the public ser­vice.

Es­sen­tially, it is about the way short-term con­tracts and the stop­start pro­cesses they in­volve may be af­fect­ing the per­for­mance of the public sec­tor, and what used to be quaintly called its morale.

At present, the ef­fects of this con­tin­u­ing churn in staff can only be anec­do­tal. Yet when the level of job in­se­cu­rity is re­port­edly putting schemes of even one year’s du­ra­tion un­der pres­sure, over­all per­for­mance seems bound to de­te­ri­o­rate.

There are sto­ries of new staff be­ing brought in on short-term con­tracts of two to three months’ du­ra­tion, and then let go again. Imag­ine try­ing to run any­thing where the key staff come in cold, and are let go again in eight weeks’ time, just as the next re­cruit – if you’re lucky – is ush­ered in the door for their in­duc­tion course and brief­ing ses­sion.

Also, once ap­pointed, con­trac­tors can hardly fo­cus on the job at hand, be­cause they need to be plan­ning their next move.

Re­peat­edly, per­ma­nent staff in the public sec­tor are be­ing re­quired to write re­ports jus­tify- ing their re­ten­tion.

Last week, one such per­son spoke to me – anony­mously – of hav­ing had to jus­tify his job through four re-struc­tur­ings and three ‘‘re-align­ments’’ since 2008, which have sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced his an­nual wages.

Mean­while, the shed­ding of per­ma­nent staff is not only costly, but is ren­der­ing some parts of the public ser­vice very dif­fi­cult to man­age.

In some cases, man­agers are re­port­edly barely get­ting to know their staff be­fore the con­tracts run out and they are re­placed by new­bies – or are not re­placed at all, pend­ing the next re­view of fund­ing and/or the next po­ten­tial de­part­men­tal merger.

The only win­ners in this process ap­pear to be the ‘‘ change man­agers’’, brought in at a cost of nearly $10 mil­lion so far in the case of the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade’s bun­gled re­forms.

One depart­ment has ap­par­ently even brought in con­sul­tants to as­sess why con­trac­tors are not stay­ing in their jobs.

The other win­ners are the re­cruit­ment agen­cies.

For a fee, these agen­cies do the screen­ing of the con­stantly churn­ing pool of can­di­dates, with some agen­cies col­lect­ing a bonus if any­one they re­fer lasts as long as six months in the same job. The losers? They are not only the peo­ple un­der fire, but the public who de­pend on the ser­vices that the Gov­ern­ment pro­vides.

Not to men­tion Welling­ton re­tail­ers, who could once rely on there be­ing far more public ser­vants with steady jobs, and dis­cre­tionary spend­ing power.

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