Thursday, April 04, 2013

The consequences of eroding the public service

Back in 1999, the public service had undergone a decade and a half of cuts. One of the consequences was an increasingly narrow focus on "core business", and the dumping of functions deemed unnecessary. The New Public Management meant managing to targets, so if it wasn't in the KPIs, it didn't get done. The net result? When they went to run the 1999 election, the Department of the Courts (who had previously provided returning officers and polling staff, as well as the institutional knowledge of people who had done it for years) decided that running elections was not its job and withdrew its staff. Which meant that on election night, we didn't get results until 3am.

Why am I thinking of this all of a sudden? Because the cash-strapped Department of Conservation has similarly decided that a longstanding service which it provides - rural fire-fighting - is not really its job and is cutting back its rural fire crews. It just costs too much money to have these people trained and equipped to stop the conservation estate - and other parts of the countryside - burning down. While DoC will save money in the short term, this erosion of capability is going to have long-term effects. If we're lucky, it will simply transfer the costs elsewhere - someone else will step in to fill the role that DoC is withdrawing from (making the "saving" largely illusory if it is a public body). If not, then the consequences could potentially be fatal. But hey, that'll be on Someone Else's Budget...

The scary thing is that DoC has been here before. Cuts and capacity erosion were directly implicated in the Cave Creek disaster. They - or rather, their Minister - seem to have learned nothing.