Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On short term contracting in the public service, and paid parental leave

April 12th, 2012

It is always dangerous to base a story on personal experience… So this is being offered mainly out of curiosity, to see whether anyone out there has had coalface experience of what this anecdote is about. Here goes.

While seeking an interview for a story with a government department last week, I suggested (to the media officer setting it up) the names of four managers who had publicly commented on aspects of the issue over the past two years, as possible candidates for the interview. No dice. None of them, I was told, were still working for the department. Later on, the interview over, I sought extra data… and the media officer told me she’d get it to me on the Tuesday after Easter. Except by then (only one and a half working days after the interview) her automated out-of-office reply message reported that she too, had gone from the department.

Disconcerting, but I eventually got the data. Yet the same story also required stats from another department. Unfortunately in the time between this department’s media staff receiving and actioning my request they’d been re-structured, the researcher was gone, and the request had to be re-started afresh.

The issue I’m talking about here is not so much job losses in the public service – which are a serious and separate issue – but something more basic. Namely, the way that the short term contracts and stop/start processes now afflicting the public sector are affecting its performance, and what used to be quaintly called its morale.

This is not the same thing, either, as the loss of in-house experience and institutional memory, or the erosion of technical expertise – serious though those trends are, as the Pike River inquiry has been making clear. I’m talking about a malaise where the job security sufficient to see schemes of even one year’s duration through to completion has become somewhat rare and problematic. Staff are being churned at a rate that seems to defy any prospect of heightened efficiency. In several departments there are stories – again anecdotal, just like mine – of new staff being brought in on ridiculously short contracts of say, two months duration, and then let go again. Imagine trying to run anything where the key staff come in cold, and are then let go again in eight weeks time just as the next recruit (if you’re lucky) is ushered in the door for their induction course and briefing session.

I have no idea of how to quantify the extent – much less the opportunity cost – of this phenomenon, but it seems widespread. Almost everyone I know currently working in the public service seems able to recount examples. In the process, the penchant for getting rid of permanent staff and bringing in short-term contractors is not only costing huge amounts in inflated consultancy costs – as Keith Ng has gone a long way to quantifying in this must –read column – it is simply making the public service all but unmanageable. In some cases, managers barely get to know their key staff before their contracts run out, and they are replaced by newbies, or are not replaced at all, pending the next review of funding and/or consideration of the next potential departmental merger.

On the side, the churn in public service staff and independent contractors must be making a mockery of the unemployment figures in Wellington and elsewhere, as people hover between bursts of short term employment. The only people making hay out of this are the “change managers” brought in at huge cost (nearly $10 million so far and counting in the case of MFAT’s bungled reforms) and the recruitment agencies. For a fee, the agencies do the screening of this constantly churning pool of candidates, with some agencies collecting a bonus for any of the people they refer who last as much as six months in the same job.

We are watching the demolition of the public service, at the behest of people ideologically opposed to any notion of service to the public being provided by central government. (These people are takers, not providers.) So….has anyone out there had experience of the impact of the short term contract syndrome?

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The Veto Against Children

Private members bills occupy a unique place in our constitutional arrangements. In a one chamber system notably lacking in checks and balances, they enable individual MPs to originate Bills outside of the party machinery, and then seek to get the support of the majority within Parliament to get them passed.

Labour MP Sue Moroney was well on the way to doing just that – with every indication that she’d get a parliamentary majority for her Bill to extend paid parental leave from the current 14 weeks to 26 weeks, over time. This proposal was to be phased in gradually – and was not due to be implemented in full until after the country’s books are expected to be back in surplus.

No such luck. Before it could be given its first reading in the House – much less before it is sent to select committee where its merits and affordability could be objectively assessed – National has announced it will veto the Bill at its third reading, should it get that far. The government has simply decided to try and pre-empt Parliamentary debate by rendering it futile – and as Finance Minister Bill English made clear on RNZ this morning, Parliament can expect that any legislative measure that involves extra costs will meet the same fate, unless it entails spending on issues and/or cronies that the government deems worthy of support.

The veto exists for a purpose. It is meant to be a measure of last resort – and was never intended to be deployed to pre-empt and skew a public debate and parliamentary vote that looks like being embarrassing for the government.

This particular use of the veto is about political management, not financial management. Yes, the same government that found $1.8 billion to bail out investors and speculators in South Canterbury Finance has shown itself willing to intimidate Parliament from the outset in its attempts to debate, analyse and vote on a measure that involves spending a relatively paltry $150 million (by year four) to assist families, and to give children a better start in life.

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    1. 12 Responses to “On short term contracting in the public service, and paid parental leave”

    2. By lyndon on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      Restructuring-related: I spoke to someone a few weeks ago who was making a funding application to the Ministry of Science and technology.

      As I understand it, MSI haven’t actually completed one of these major funding rounds since since it was created in 2011 (folding FoRST into the old ministry).

      Now they seem to be in a hurry, probably because they’re about to be merged into the new mega-minstry. They’re making everyone do 30-page full submissions rather than running an intial application process and shortlisting.

      That’s not very efficient for either end of the process, and the whole business doesn’t seem conducive to the stable long-term funding a lot of research needs.

    3. By Joe D on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      The “unaffordable” mantra for parental leave is a joke. Quite apart from the economic “strategy” that the government deployed to get us into this situation – remarkably similar to a predatory asset stripper’s approach to prepping a company for sale – the parental leave is eminently affordable in the long term since it will save more money than it will cost. Dixit Peter Gluckman, who listed the future savings in remedial education, healthcare, and even prisons.

      Funny how the PM’s science advisor, whose advice on improving maternal nutrition even popped up in the National Party’s 2011 policy manifesto ( http://www.national.org.nz/PDF_General/Health-Maternity_and_Child_Health_policy.pdf ), is now being ignored.

      In any case, even in the short term its costs will be less than those of the $130 million welfare reform or the $100 million consultancy/brokerage fees for the asset sales.

      There’s a good one, to call the government’s bluff: Cancel the Asset Sales to Pay for Parental Leave.

      The revenue stream otherwise foregone by sales will more than pay for the continued costs of the leave extension…

    4. By pete on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      The only times that short-term contracts are of any value is when the scope of the role is clearly set, and support is in place. This never happens these days due to churn and restructure. And the ‘rationalisation’ of roles.

      Induction is almost never a reality either, nor is training. It’s particularly grating when the consultants are hired for high-impact change work items, when some background would minimise the impact on existing priorities and individual workstreams.

      On morale – personally I’ve been through four re-alignments and three restrutures since 2008, and been made redundant twice during this time (once individually, once as part of a team – though both roles exist again since the redundancy). I’ve had to reapply for my job four times, and new roles when made redundant. I’m shortly going to be moving into the new super-Ministry, with a fate unknown, and will inevitably have to justify (again) continuing in this role, and the work we do (which is constantly expanding without any additional resourcing). In the same space of time my salary has taken a $18K hit (though at least I have a job), and I haven’t seen a pay-rise in the past two years, with none on the horizon (despite performance reviews being universally postive).

      I really enjoy the work I do, I respect the effort and intellect of my colleagues and the extended hours we put in, and I believe we help make a difference to the NZ public. I also typically understand the rationale for change, when it comes, but morale is, and has been at a relatively low ebb for some time.

      When every other week there’s a new story about the euphemistic ‘rationalisation’ or ‘capping’ of the public sector, and the flow-on comments from Joe Public you can feel a bit strained. Particularly when the comment is “it’s about time” (given what we’ve all already been through).

      Meantime there’s plenty of distraction which inevitably reduces productivity.

      The flow-on of this is that (primarily Wellington) businesses also experience the impacts of churn, and the taxpayer picks up the bill for those who lose their jobs and need a financial fall-back (and their families).

      Bleak times, but we make do because that’s how we support the ailing taxpayer during a recession.

    5. By Sam on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      Re. Short-term public sector contracting: I joined a government dept as a contractor late last year. We have morning teas for departing contractors almost every week, many of whom had had only been in post for a couple of months and went through hours of paid induction and training. Almost half of my immediate colleagues have left since I started, and most of the rest are short-term contractors. Even the team managers are contractors for another 3 months, as is the head of the programme.

      As contractors, we’re not eligible for healthcare benefits, parental leave, online learning, or even to check out books from the departmental library! Managers attend countless meetings and excuse their inefficiencies by choosing from a range of factors: they’ve only recently joined the team, key project members have left, resources are low, etc. and nothing is ever accomplished. All deadlines for projects are ‘indicative’ and unlikely to be met. Staff rarely bother bonding as you’re just another replacement who’ll leave soon, if they don’t beat you to it. Managers are justifiably frustrated and most contractors feel out of their depth, working on projects they’ll abandon before having the time to build any kind of real knowledge base. There is no quality of working life for staff, and there is no quality of service for the public who are funding these departments.

      Also, if your contract only lasts 2-3 months, it’s imperative that you start looking for a new job almost as soon as you’re in post. And if you find something that requires you to start before your current contract is up then you go right ahead and screw over your department because you have bills to pay, family to support, and can’t afford to be unemployed. Without job security, we’re caught in an exhausting pattern of jumping from one role to another. This isn’t because we find contracting stimulating or freeing or because we get bored easily (although we frequently spout these reasons when trying to justify what’s going on in our working lives). Contracting is draining, fraught with tension about what to do when your position draws to a close, and filled with hours of feeling demoralised, deperately selling your wares to recruitment agencies who want to know if you’ll be a good little cash cow for them. All in all, pretty miserable really.

    6. By Rose on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      Where I work the “change management” team is a revolving door of contractors, none are able to work with our control freak borderline sociopath boss, (who is the CEO’s best friend and has followed her from job to job). The CEO meantime spends a lot of in her office or on Leadership courses. We’ve also got team of contractors who have been bought in to do a report on why all the contractors keep quitting. *sigh*.

    7. By Whatever on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      Other catches with this situation are:
      - with the inability to develop policy in-house, there will be a greater tendency to grab “ready-made” policy from others
      - destruction of civil service work ethics and
      - destruction of civil service senior management capability

      The latter is no-doubt behind the growing number of fubar’s we are starting to experience.

    8. By pclarebu on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      I have worked as a government employee, a local government employee and as a contractor – I am currently a contract consultant and have been since 2002.

      A couple of things.
      (1) you(well I) get paid more as a contractor if I compare my daily rate with a permanent employee’s annual rate divided by 260. However the permanent employee’s pay includes things that are not included in my daily rate (as Sam points out above).
      (2) I know of at least one NZ company who only allows contractors to work for up to a maximum period – as because if they have them longer than that – (despite the original agreement and compensating rates) the contractor can then apply to the courts to be deemed an employee and then can in addition pick up certain employee benefits (of course this assumes you are not in the movie industry).

      I think Gordon is making the point with his selected examples that not all roles are suitable for contractors/ consultants. What he doesn’t seem to explore (I am assuming because it would not help the case he is trying to make) is that some jobs are suitable for contractors, and these would include projects where for a short period of time additional resource, or specialist resource is required and after a certain point this resource extra resource is no longer required. As I said certain projects – including transitions would be included here.

      I have no real idea about the circumstances that contractors are hired under in the government at the present time – is it due to skill shortage, is it due to transition, is it due to a temporary increase of resource requirement – or is it simply due to poor management.

      I have read a number of discussions on this topical issue and these have been typically from political opponents of the current government and all, to a fault, have few facts, or selected facts.

      There is little availability of a balanced report providing evidence of examples of good use of contractors to match up with examples of bad use of contractors and little in the way of analysis of the picture overall – mostly gross figures which may or may not be significant.

      I am pretty sure that there will be many examples of bad use of contractors – but equally I am sure there are examples of good use. What we need is an unbiased analysis – is that possible? – I would suspect not.

    9. By davidstuartgray on Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

      Please excuse my ignorance, but is anyone able to explain to me where this power of veto comes from? Is it legislative? In Parliament’s standing orders? On the surface, it seems an astonishing provision, and one I was completely unaware of until now.

    10. By lyndon on Apr 13, 2012 | Reply

      Fair question: It’s apparently in the standing orders; see background section here http://www.dpmc.govt.nz/cabinet/circulars/co07/2 .

      The argument seems to be that cabinet remains responsible for the budget. I think someone said it came in with MMP.

      It’s rarely (and not so dramatically) used, not least because most bills come from the government in the first place. It’s mostly been used to knock back amendments to government bills – I haven’t heard anyone say it’s been used in a situation like this before.

    11. By e-clectic on Apr 13, 2012 | Reply

      Read Thomas Frank’s “The Wrecking Crew”. That will make it all come clear.

    12. By Kirsten on Apr 18, 2012 | Reply

      Here are some facts to back-up your annecdote Gordon. 43% of all new hires in the public service last year were on fixed term contracts. See SSC’s website: http://www.ssc.govt.nz/sites/all/files/hrc-survey-2011.pdf
      So, contracting is only one contributor to increasingly insecure work in the public sector.

    13. By Randle on Apr 24, 2012 | Reply

      One sector where short term contracting is unavoidable is in the fisheries observer program. Most contracts tend to run between 4-6 weeks depending on how long the vessel is at sea. However there are current murmurings that at least part of this program will become privatised by the end if the year due to industry pressure http://www.munz.org.nz/2012/03/27/outsourcing-fishing-observers-role-is-dangerous-for-the-industry-2/

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