Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Whys of Surviving the Government

Recently, I wrote an essay imparting the lessons I have learned as a 25-year veteran of the public service to the next generation of government workers. For example, I told them about deferring tasks, always saying "yes" and the five-year rule which states that "new" initiatives and programs are recycled about every five years.

But my essay was basically a nuts and bolts approach to day-to-day survival in the bureaucracy. It didn’t answer the "whys" of life in the government. Today’s installment seeks to remedy that deficiency.

Perhaps the most common query is "Why don’t we know what’s happening?" For most government employees, this is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of their job. Despite working at or near the heart of power, they seldom have a clue as to what is actually going on. In fact, they are more likely to find out about government plans and initiatives from newspaper reports than from their employer.

The reason, of course, is that in government, knowledge is power. The more you know and the sooner you know it, the more status you have. The corollary to this rule is that communication in the bureaucracy goes up the ladder, not down. Despite hearing frequent paeans to transparency and openness in government, the average civil servant is more likely to get a buyout than actual useful information from above.

Another frequent question is "Why are they doing that?" with the emphasis on the word "doing." The reason follows from the one-way flow of information and the tendency to keep information secret. Rather than share their plans and proposals with those beneath them, senior mandarins prefer to gather information from below and use it to suit their own ends.

This means that many decisions are made with little or no input from the minions with actual expertise in the areas affected. A particularly dangerous version of this game is the annual budget exercise. Since the budget is a highly confidential document, there is virtually no top down communication during its creation. That means that any old proposal that’s still lying around in someone’s desk drawer or hard drive may get incorporated into the budget and become law no matter how ridiculous it is.

This begs the further question "Who is asking for this?" with the emphasis on the word "asking." Inevitably, whatever foolishness is being implemented originates from a command by someone senior in power, a minister or even the prime minister.

A minister asks, say, for a new program to streamline the government and that sets off a whole chain reaction. The task is divided between various deputy ministers who, in turn, divvy up their sub-tasks to their assistant deputy ministers. The job is further farmed out to director generals and directors and, before you know it, the new program to streamline the government has created its own mini-bureaucracy.

A question often heard in the public service is "Why is that person in charge?" with an emphasis on the word "that." And often the answer can be found in the government’s commitment to the principle of revolving executives.

Whereas years ago, the head of a department worked his way up through the ranks acquiring valuable hands-on experience, now deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers are rotated from department to department regardless of their lack of technical expertise. And since they are usually rotated out within two or three years, they’re seldom around to be blamed for the inevitable failures that their ill-informed decisions cause.

Among employees with more years of service, a frequent question is "Didn’t we do this before?" with the emphasis on the word "before." And the answer is, more often than not, "yes." Because communication is up, not down; because decisions are made in secret and because expertise is ignored, what was tried and failed five years ago is inevitably tried and fails again and again.

The public service is filled with questions like these and each question has an answer, although seldom a logical one. After all, the primary job of government is to make sure nothing much changes. And if you understand that simple principle, you’ve got a job for life.

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