Guest Post: Frontline vs back-office

A guest post from a commenter who has worked in the public service:

Frontline vs. back-office

The slogan “more frontline, less back-office” is, on the face of it, hard to argue with. Who wouldn’t want more services for the same (or less) money? Unfortunately, reality is a little bit more complicated than that, and the recent move by the government to sharpen service delivery through cutting “back-office functions” is short-sighted and likely to fail.

The term “frontline” comes from the military. We have a term: “tooth-to-tail ratio”. This means the number of “trigger pullers” versus the number of support personnel. In a military sense, there is a sweet spot – where the tail far outnumbers the teeth. For every frontline rifleman or tanker, you’re likely to have at least ten (and likely a lot more) support personnel. Every fighter pilot has thirty to fifty personnel supporting him. Incredibly inefficient? Not at all. History is full of examples where forces with a heavy tail-to-tooth ratio were incredibly successful: Germany 1939-1941, or the US Army 1944-1945 for example. And history also has some classic examples where the tooth got too big, and there was not enough tail – Germany 1944-1945, for example. In simple terms, there is a sweet spot of “frontline” and “rear area” staff. You can’t get more effective by changing the ratio; if you want to upsize or downsize, you still keep the ratio the same. You rescale from the corner.

So, if the government wants to use a military term, it needs to realise it’s using it incorrectly. And it needs to realise that ratios are what matters; if it wants to spend less, shave a little off everywhere. Because the concept of “frontline” is an amorphous one. We’d all agree the cop on I-car responding to calls for service is frontline, right? But what about the cops in the organised crime squads, who undertake proactive investigations (those without a public call for service)? What about the scene of crime officers (civilians) who attend the scenes? What about the fingerprint examiners back in the labs? What about the intelligence analysts who produce the “hotspot” maps showing where burglaries are skyrocketing, or disorder problems are emerging? What about the workforce co-ordinators who set the shifts for their squads? What about the analysts at Police HQ working out which boots are best, or when Tasers should be used, or the best way of keeping weapons safe? Which of those are “frontline”, and which of those are “back office”?

That’s half the story. In human resources and finance, I have no qualms with calling them back office, but is cutting them efficient? The public sector reforms of the 1980s, instigated by Roger Douglas and co, had a beautiful theoretical simplicity at their core: managerial responsibility and contracting. Here’s the thing. The more you take away from managers in terms of human resources and financial control, the less responsible they are and the less accountable they can be held. Shared services would be anathema to Douglas and co in those heady days (as someone who would never vote Act, I at least respect the intellectual strength of those early positions). The micromanagement of the current National government would also be anathema to them, who believed in contracting for a service from a department and letting the department decide how to do it. Indeed, the micromanagement of the current government has also been replicated within individual government departments, which are becoming increasingly dictatorial and driven from the centre. Rather than flexible government departments that evolve and adapt to specific conditions, we are seeing the re-emergence of 19th century style “mega bureaucracy”, with policies and procedures set by diktat at the top, with Chief Executives managing down a dozen levels on hiring decisions. Is this what we want?

I can only speak from my own expertise. The cuts in the NZDF, the flawed “refocusing of the back-office”, have hindered the military capability of that force across the entire spectrum. As Napoleon said, in war morale is to the physical as three is to one; and believe me when I say that morale in that force is absolutely shot to death. In the Police, all the current government seems to focus on is “more front-line cops.” I can only speak as someone with substantial research experience in the field: more front-line cops has little or no effect on crime rates. Full stop, end of story. More complex, more sophisticated reforms (whether community oriented policing, problem oriented policing, or intelligence-led policing) may have some effect, but they do not rely on stripping the back office to put more cops out there responding to calls for service, which is a discredited, 1960s model of policing. If back office functions are cut, we will have fewer people thinking about policing (or any government service) and more people doing. Again, it sounds good on the surface, but there is no point in a lot of activity if it has little or no effect on your goals. I don’t have specific knowledge, but I would guess adding more social workers and more doctors is also pointless unless there is careful direction as well.

I will leave with a quote from Major General Robert H. Scales, U.S. Army, (retd). Talking about the British army during the 19th and early 20th century, he said:

“The reckoning came at the battles of Mons and Le Cateau in 1914, when this army disappeared under the guns of a force that had spent the last half-century studying war rather than practicing it. The cultural bias toward action rather than reflection so permeated the British Army in World War I that the deaths of more than a million failed to erase it. Some scholars contend that this tragic obsession still left its dulling mark until well after World War II.”

Our current government’s own bias towards action rather than reflection will also have negative results.

As with most guest posts the views within are not necessarily my own.

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