Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Patronage and the public sector

In my post below on Tariana Turia's attempts to defend the indefensible, I said that we should not allow managers to turn public institutions (such as Te Wananga o Aotearoa) into private fiefdoms to be run for their own benefit. This is a fundamental principle of public sector organisation. But it wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, the whole public service ran along the lines suggested by Ms Turia - Ministers decided who was hired, who was promoted, and how much they were paid. This led to widespread abuse, as Ministers used their ministries as tools of political patronage, providing "jobs for the boys" and sinecures, as well as promoting people on the basis of their political views or their connections without necessarily considering their ability to do the job. Attempts were made in both 1866 and 1887 to implement competititve entry by examination, but with Ministers retaining the power to make "temporary" appointments, the door to patronage was left wide open.

The system reached its lowest point under the Liberal government of "King Dick" Seddon. The best illustration of this is a traditional tale, recounted by Geoffrey Palmer in a speech:

a friend of Seddon’s [came] from the West Coast to Wellington and asked Seddon for a job. Seddon sent him to the head of the Census and Statistics Department with an instruction to officials that he should be given some employment. The Department took him on as a messenger, but found he could not read. He was therefore dismissed. Seddon asked for an explanation. The chief executive said: "I cannot employ this man. He is unable to read." Seddon’s reply was "Learn him!"

These sorts of excesses led inevitably to reform - a public service with appointment on merit, and employment decisions removed permenantly from the hands of ministers. And under those rules, the system works fairly well. Sure, managers still naturally rise to their level of incompetance, but at least they're not promoted beyond it simply as a political favour.

From reading the history of Te Wananga on its website, it seems it was originally a private training establishment which morphed into a public entity. Unfortunately, its internal culture does not seem to have caught up with its new status; it seems still to be stuck in the mindset of the small private organisation it was in the 80's. And it's rather telling that the same man, Dr Rongo Wetere, has been in charge for Te Wananga's entire twenty-plus year history. If he is unable to adapt his management methods to Te Wananga's new role as a large, public sector organisation, then he should go.