Short-term gain, but at what cost?
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.