Guest Post: Frontline vs back-office

March 26th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

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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30 Responses to “Guest Post: Frontline vs back-office”

  1. GConnell (20 comments) says:

    Nice post.

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  2. Sonny Blount (1,845 comments) says:

    From this part of your post:

    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?

    I am guessing that this part of your post does not include them:

    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.

    I would include what you mentioned in the earlier part of your post as front line and I certainly expect this government also would, which I suspect may make your later assertion invalid.

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  3. Sonny Blount (1,845 comments) says:

    This post is also equally as vague as the more front line/less back office policy.

    Until someone actually uses figures and gives a definite answer to what they consider more or less nothing of consequence is being said How do we know where we are in relation to ideal ratios now and which side of those ratios will Nationals policies place us? This post doesn’t answer that. It just says National bad without backing up the assertion. Of course, National good also needs to be backed up in this case as well.

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  4. calendar girl (1,173 comments) says:

    “I can only speak from my own expertise. ”

    There’s nothing in the post from which readers can assess with any confidence the level of “expertise” that the writer claims.

    However, the writer is refreshingly frank in disclosing personal political prejudices, a capacity for sweeping generalisation, and an explicit determination that change in the public service must be resisted.

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  5. La Grand Fromage (145 comments) says:

    This is bollocks. We all know what culling the back office means. It means getting rid of the guy in the Police who spends all day working out which shade of blue for uniforms would best represent the ethnic and alternative sexual orientations that exist within the organisation.

    Or perhaps just the guy at MED who spends all day posting on the Standard. Or the professional meeting attendees.

    If you provide a real service for something we actually need then your job is safe. If you are in one of the positions made up under the Clarke regime to reduce jobless numbers then sayonara.

    Defence is different. We have got to the stage where we couldn’t defend ourselves against anyone so why bother at all. Get the knife out.

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  6. JamesP (76 comments) says:

    I wonder though how much this front vs. back office talk reflects policy as opposed to being a plausible soundbite for the news?

    The real battle IMO is not the composition, size, or cost of the public service. It is about its scope. Once the scope of government has been adequately defined then I believe all those other factors will fall into line. If on the other hand we follow the Clarkist policy that “the government’s role is whatever the government defines it to be” then that is a recipe for unending public service growth.

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  7. Richard29 (377 comments) says:

    Very good post- I hold something very close to the same view myself.

    The fact is that in most government departments you could lay off anybody with a job title that includes the words ‘Analyst’, ‘Strategy’, ‘Policy’ or ‘Advisor’ and you would probably see no impact to service levels for weeks or even months. In the short term it’d save a bunch of money. But in the long term you end up with a massively inefficient beast of a beaurocracy that has no idea where it is going or why.

    The thing with service providers (of which government is one of the largest) is that the really big savings are associated with taking advantage of changes in how people consume services. Self service is the key – it requires no frontline staff whatsoever. What it does require is a heap of technology and an associated team of project managers, database specialists, business analysts, web and mobile developers, security specialists etc.

    Just look at the private sector. How many banks do you see downscaling their (back office driven) internet and online offerings so they can spend more money on expensive branches and frontline staff. How many telco’s and ISP’s are cutting back on product and service development and online self service to pay for more high street stores and call centre staff. How many power co’s want more frontline bums on seats at postshop to process their cash payments over the counter versus an approach like Powershop who manage the whole thing seamlessly online so you never have to speak to a human being.

    Even the PM, obviously still giddy headed from meetings with Google, was saying recently how people should be able to apply for and renew their passport online or via a technology driven process and that IRD should spend a billion dollars overhauling their IT systems to improve efficiency and reduce staff overheads in the long term.

    Cutting ‘back office’ in something like the medical field makes no sense. I would rather every doctor had their own personal PA to file for them, write up notes, handle appointments, maintain the workplace etc. This is exactly how private sector health practices operate (and they’ll also invest in technology to TXT you for your appointment or manage your medical records online). Having somebody who’s completed 7 years of schooling and is paid a six figure salary doing any more basic administration work than is absolutely necessary is lunacy.

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  8. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    The author can argue all they like about the relative merits of re-sizing their part of the state sector.

    In response to the complaint “Rather than flexible government departments that evolve and adapt to specific conditions…”, I’d note that this ‘evolution’ and ‘adaptation’ has accelerated bureaucratic bloat, a cost measured in international competitiveness as more value is syphoned away form the productive economy into central administration. Back in 2008 this bloat was measured as a 13 hectare increase in civil servants over the preceding 5 years.  

    Would our kids have a better future if NZ spawned the next Google, or another government department?

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  9. djf001 (3 comments) says:

    That’s a very good, well written, knowledgeable post, shame they didn’t put their name to it so no credit can be attributed to the person.

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  10. RRM (9,451 comments) says:

    Well that article disagrees with my (ignorant) prejudices, so I’m going to ignore it. :-P

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  11. mikenmild (10,715 comments) says:

    Thanks kk for the reminder. It might well be that government office space will follow the dictates of Parkinson’s Law and continue to expand even if the number of staff reduces.
    Of course, one important factor in the increase was the decision in the 1990s to sell off the government-owned buildings and allow departments to rent as they saw fit.

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  12. Nostalgia-NZ (4,910 comments) says:

    I think the blog is completely accurate. The weeding out these purges accomplish generally meets with public approval of the idea that a high number of civil servants are not really working or that 2 them could easily do the job of 3. Pike River mine showed where that leads, around 2 years ago housing corp were ‘cleaned out’ however a lot of staff were in fact merely shifted to contracts. I also agree with the point of ‘blending’ and give an example that because you work in an auto shop as a mechanic you can effectively spray paint as well. Key was more on the money with stream lining using more modern technology. If that is used with natural retirements and ceasing employment the result is more cost efficient but the delivery of services is equal or improved. The nature of the changes, new technology and training also has to be carefully implemented otherwise industrial unrest is created. We sure need to spend less but can’t expect people fairly and productively doing their jobs to do more without good incentive. I’m in favour of the changes but for big savings we need to take the blinkers off the ‘employment industry’ for poor returns that is high prison musters.

    All of this on a day of course when the Herald prints the eye-watering salaries paid to Government CEOs.

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  13. Than (425 comments) says:

    While the author’s logic is valid (there is a good ratio of tooth-to-tail, and varying too far from that is bad) they completely fail to address the obvious next question; is the current public service at that ideal ratio?

    They seem to assume (without presenting justification) the current staffing levels are close to the ideal tooth-to-tail ratio. If so then yes, cuts to back-office staff would be bad. But if the current ratio is too tail heavy, then National’s reforms are bringing us closer to the ideal ratio.

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  14. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    mm – the bloat was an increase in state sector bums on seats requiring more floor space – nothing to do with building ownership. Other measures of bloat include, for example, spending on the health sector jumping from $7b in 2000 to to $13.5b in 2010. We simply can not afford to keep increasing the size of the state sector. Something has to change.

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  15. seanmaitland (455 comments) says:

    sorry, but you just come across as an apologist.

    If there is nothing that can be cut, why then did Labour hire 10,000 plus extra public servants, while the quality of services (health, education etc) went backwards?

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  16. Falafulu Fisi (2,176 comments) says:

    The author’s argument is redundant. We all know that frontline (from whatever department) need behind the desk support people. Anyone who hasn’t figured that out must be confused.

    What should be asked is the question of What is the legitimate role of the Government (ie, its moral justification for its existence in the first place)? Once an answer is given to that question, then a lot of what’s being discussed here on non-core government roles are irrelevant. Example, Is Welfare program a legitimate role of the government? No, not really. How about the National Defense? Yep, Definitely.

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  17. Neebone (28 comments) says:

    Well argued point.

    For all it’s tragedy don’t lose site of the fact that ‘action rather than reflection’ was on the winning side.
    Also under Labour the size of government grew dramatically, the public perception is that the police frontline was not a major benefactor, especially in places like South Auckland that had a high crime rate.

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  18. East Wellington Superhero (1,151 comments) says:

    I vote National like the next guy (though I do it because I don’t like Labour, rather than I like National) but I do share the authors concern that disempowering managers could make things worse. And also his concern about less accountability for shared services.

    The bigger question however, that should proceed debates of teeth-to-tail ratios, is whether we need some of these tails in the first place. In the military the infantry needs logistics so it’s not the best analogy. Nor is using the police. Further to that there are certain aspects of the MoH and the MoE that I grant, are probably needed if you’re going to have public health and education systems. But do we need a massive tail for WINZ? Or the new super-MED? Why do these people do and why do we need them? Have we become so useless that ‘the government’ is now the place we look to for help instead or our family, our neighbours, or the community group we’re part of, and who, largely, help us at virtually no cost.

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  19. East Wellington Superhero (1,151 comments) says:

    @ Falafulu

    Exactly.

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  20. elscorcho (152 comments) says:

    I was the author of this guest post (cheers DPF – I have a lot more respect for you publishing something you probably disagree with)

    I seldom (if ever) agree with Falafulu but I think it’s actually far more logical to say “the government shouldn’t be doing X/Y” than it is to say “you should be doing X, but we’ll tell you how to do it was well.”

    As for my level of expertise, you will have to go on faith I guess – postgrad qualifications in policy analysis (decision-making specifically) and several years experience in the “back office” (as well as several years experience on the “front line”, however I would guess I did more good in the back rather than the front).

    Someone said this:
    “If there is nothing that can be cut, why then did Labour hire 10,000 plus extra public servants, while the quality of services (health, education etc) went backwards”
    First, did the quality of service go backwards? I don’t know about health, but I know educational standards remain very high in NZ.

    Most government departments don’t actually have substantial evaluation or R&D components. We spend billions (tens of billions!) on their services but we don’t spend even 5% of that amount hiring people to research/evaluate those outcomes – leading us to simplistic measures instead. Unfortunately NZ doesn’t have enough universities to do the job either.

    Technology is wonderful, and again I may be prejudiced given my background, but technology cannot THINK. A lot of the key stuff in public service delivery is strategic/operational and technology only counts at the tactical level. There’s no point every cop having a Taser, gun, and a PDA if you don’t have an understanding of the underlying drivers of the criminal environment. I assume the same applies in health etc. There’s a reason they’re called “wicked problems”

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  21. Ed Snack (1,737 comments) says:

    Well, my only comment would be that Major General Robert Scales is utterly ignorant about the course of WW1. At both Mons and Le Cateau the small ( at the time a mere 2 corps of around 2 divisions each, and only one, 2 Corps commanded by General Smith-Dorien, fought at both battles), faced German forces of around 4-5 corps are won near decisive tactical victories and inflicted far heavier casualties than they suffered. What’s more, the British army was extremely well served by its logistics tail (at the time commanded by Lt General Robertson, later to become Chief of Staff and nominal head of the army.

    That those two battles were followed by retreats was as a result of the incompetent strategic approach from Generals French and Wilson, and the French Army command led by Joffre.

    What did happen later was the series of battles generally called 1st Ypres, and that was the death knell of the existing professional British Army. That was the first example of an attritional battle in WW1, and the British did not have the reserves immediately available. They also lacked artillery & especially shells as a result of a lack of industrial capacity in those specialised industries. The reserves situation was also exacerbated by the failure (against the specifically expressed desire to do so by Haig, commander of 1 Corps at the time) to leave at least 10% of the experienced officers and NCO’s behind as a nucleus to train reservists and new troops with. The prevailing myth was “over by Christmas” and no one wanted to be left out of the chance for glory either.

    As a force, for its size, the British Army was very good, tactically significantly superior to the Germans if distinctly lacking in equipment (for example 2 machine guns per battalion versus 6-8, no trench equipment at all including no grenades, and a distinct lack of artillery and shells). It was however small with a reasonable backup from the Territorials, and it did have a good administrative tail. Where it lacked equipment and numbers it was as a result of political decisions, the original TA was proposed to be twice the size it actually was because of government policy (which was focussed on spending on social goals); and Great Britain did not have a strategic plan that including deploying a large army on the continent.

    And then at the end of WW1, the British “tail” was remarkably efficient. Although stretched by the 100 days of advances following 8 August to 11 November, it was perfectly capable of supporting a push onward to the Rhine after a pause for resupply. That stands in complete contrast to the US Army at the time, which was almost completely exhausted with a chaotic and incapable resupply tail. The French too were distinctly stretched as well, if in a better shape than the Americans.

    So I don’t buy Walker’s assertions about the British Army’s poor supply. They certainly suffered significant production shortages at the start of both major World Wars, but that was far more for political reasons, and a strategic short-sightedness (probably economic considerations were significant as well) that meant that they started both wars without the equipment or the productive capacity made ready to wage war as they wished.

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  22. Brian Harmer (686 comments) says:

    It happened in the science institutes and in the universities. You may cut out the back office people, but the back office work still needs to be done (very often in the form of tedious accountability stuff, filling in mandatory but ultimately meaningless metrics such as PBRF for people who believe that the back office is not useful). Since it still has to be done, what happens next is that the most senior scientist or academic gets “promoted” to be head of department, and in one blow you have converted a very good and often quite highly paid subject expert into a mediocre administrator. A good scientist becomes a bad manager. Not always, but usually.

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  23. calendar girl (1,173 comments) says:

    elscorcho @ 2.45pm: “As for my level of expertise, you will have to go on faith I guess – postgrad qualifications in policy analysis (decision-making specifically) and several years experience in the “back office” (as well as several years experience on the “front line”, however I would guess I did more good in the back rather than the front).”

    As I thought, a public servant attempting to defend his / her familiar patch.

    The opportunity is long past in Athens and elsewhere for intellectual political debate of this nature. It will soon disappear in Wellington too if the present Government fails to reverse New Zealand’s public borrowing spree and replace it with a programme of sustained debt reduction. Accumulation of public debt over the last four years has been the only strategy that has maintained the public service status quo that the guest commentator seeks to entrench.

    Debt is now a major public enemy. Allowing debt to grow inexorably towards problem levels being exhibited in Western Europe will result ultimately in New Zealand surrendering significant aspects of its national sovereignty. I don’t see many public servants recognising the fate that awaits this country, let alone embracing solutions to pre-empt that fate.

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  24. kowtow (7,624 comments) says:

    What a silly conclusion,Mons and Le Cateau!

    The BEF performed magnificently against superior odds. The retreat was tactical and led to eventual victory at the Marne. Germany never recovered and ultimately lost the war and their Empire.
    BEF casualties at Mons and Le Cateau were in the order of 15000 men killed wounded and missing and 42 guns lost.

    The BEF were prepared for the encounter by earlier reforms( Haldane) following the Boer wars.The British infantry at Mons and Le Cateau were probably the best in the world at the time. Look up the “mad minute”. The Germans thought they were facing machine guns.

    I make no comment on the conduct of the rest of WW1.But Mons and Le Cateau are rightly high points in the history of British arms.

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  25. mikenmild (10,715 comments) says:

    I’d only add to the comments from Ed Snack and kowtow by mentioning that not only were the British infantry probably the finest in the world at the beginning of the First World War, they were still the best at the end too. The post was a typical example of using random quotes to support a completely unrelated argument. Very little can be understood about back-office functions in the 21st century NZ public service by considering the experience of vast armies in the world wars.

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  26. Ed Snack (1,737 comments) says:

    Kowtow, well said, but it was more like 9,600; 1,600 odd at Mons and around 8,000 at Le Cateau. They only had around 70,000 all up so this was over 10% of their numbers. However they still had good morale and fought back effectively in the first battle of the Marne, if a little slow to advance. They did a hell of a lot of marching in the first few weeks.

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  27. kowtow (7,624 comments) says:

    ed
    Thanks. I was quoting from John Terraine, Mons The Retreat to Victory,1960.
    It is dedicated to The Old Contemptibles.

    While the Prussians had a lot going for them I can’t stand our side being put down,it’s dishonourable to their memory.

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  28. Pongo (371 comments) says:

    Key refuses to address the overall scope of government and has to expend politically capital trying to get payroll done on the cheap. You could nail half a dozen government departments without anyone noticing, there are hundreds of quango,s that do very little ( see Whaleoil for the 50million taxpayers fund anti smoking lobby groups). Keys problem is he is too timid to address the dopey ETS, Student Loans, pension age, WFF so instead of having an adoring Thatcherite legacy he will be not seen like a Clarke type figure but NZ most popular PM who squandered his time in charge.
    Stil can’t work out if it is Key or the daft MMP system.

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  29. CryHavoc (43 comments) says:

    Falafulu and JamesP have the question right, it seems to me. The starting point needs to be what exactly do you want the public service to do? Define that and then start culling – and provide enough resources for the remaining civil service to do its job properly.

    The problem I have with the current NZ Government is that its position for the public service of “do more with less” is philosophically inconsistent. I would be happier to have my job on the line if the Government said “we believe the reach of Government is too great, so we are going to do less” and started making cuts. OK, I wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but at least it would show a Government acting with some intellectual coherence.

    Of course the counter-argument is that the public sector is inherently inefficient and that the current Government’s position is to iron out those inefficiencies. When it comes to things like combining IT and HR systems across departments, that makes some sense. The problem is that instead, the easiest thing for the Government to do is to get rid of support staff – secretaries and admin people etc – which just means that the well-paid, well-educated civil servants end up doing photocopying and formatting Ministerial letters. That is where we are now, with money being wasted on people with 6 figure salaries stocking the stationery. This is not an exaggeration; I see it every day.

    Finally, Pongo is right. Wasn’t the Treasury Secretary saying a few weeks ago that all the job losses in the public sector (I think around 2-3000 or so?) had saved something like $20m total? In other words, these restructures and efficiency drives end up saving next to nothing when compared to the cost of the social programmes left over from the Clark Government that the current Key Government is too scared – or its electoral position too precarious, perhaps – to address. The PM acknowledged as much in his recent comments on interest-free student loans.

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  30. mikenmild (10,715 comments) says:

    Those are good points. While efficiency is a laudable aim, experience to date suggest there are fairly limited savings to be made in the way the public service is structured and administered.
    I’m happy to agree that a government should approach this from a perspective of what it desires to be achieved – structure follows function. However, remember that this is a National government, inherently conservative. So one can expect a certain rearrangement of the deck chairs, and perhaps an instruction to the orchestra to play happier music, but no effort to save the sinking ship.

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