July 06, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

Have We Hit Peak People?

Something seems to have happened since I last did a stint in the public service, nearly 5 years ago. Back then, managerialism was still in vogue. There were silly obsessions about performance, and group gatherings to build morale that actually helped to break it. That’s because the highly paid facilitators always steered the team to abstract concepts of leadership, problem solving and effectiveness. The hierarchical veneer was carefully kept from puncture. No specific issues were ever raised, or solved. So all you could do was drift along, pretending. Lots of pretending, little accountability. What about that middle manager who didn’t really do any work? And what became of the guy who said bluntly, as he floated around chatting, ‘I’ve worked out that they pay me just to show up.’
But that agency vanished shortly after I left, and the other agency I worked at for so many years was also eventually down-scaled and quietly moved to a less prestigious department. There were no outcries from former stakeholders, who had learned to ignore them years before. When I took them to the Human Rights Commission many years ago, it might have marked their turning point and eventual decline.
But here, at another department that is important for the nation’s future, the mood is somewhat different. Or so it seems after a full two weeks of full time work and observation.
To begin with, the workforce seems younger. The stats about an ageing public service may still be true, but where are the over 50s, clinging desperately until they can take a defined benefit pension? Those are, by the way, second in value only to the pensions the pollies themselves get. Defined benefit + indexed for inflation is as good as it gets for retirement income. I wish mine was larger, but having been mostly part-time and then taking a redundancy slowed that stream to a gentle but reliable trickle.
These young people are well educated, on average. They are also well paid, well fed, well dressed, and presumably well housed if they have a decent income and are living in Canberra. Their working conditions are, I venture to propose, as good as any in the world. Perhaps the Nordic countries are even more generous, but believe me, public servants in Canberra have nothing to complain about.
They stroll at lunchtimes, bundled into their overcoats, with healthy faces. The women are conservatively fashionable, the men mostly clean shaven with short hair. It is a type I’ve long been part of, a sort of camouflage. I can’t help smiling when I see our Kevin on TV, every bit the former public servant, intelligent, capable, hard-working and highly motivated. The picture of the Minister for our Department looks very much like one of the young executive level staff, I can imagine them all coordinating a staff farewell on their Blueberries: should it be Thai? There’s a good Indonesian place….
This very benign environment does not mean management is perfect, or that politics and personalities have become irrelevant. I just haven’t noticed any lurking malignancies, and usually that sort of thing reveals itself pretty quickly. But I’m just trying to fit in, find my own level and make a contribution.
And I am happy to report that after a bit of settling in, there seems to be a place where I can have influence, use my background and skills in ways that are valued, and feel a modest sense of achievement. I am content, even cheerful, to be a productive cog. They have charged me with an executive summary, I know some of you will see this document, and I hope it is useful.
More I cannot say, as it would contravene the public sector core values. Of course, I’ve been around the traps long enough to know that these are often breached. Something came around about guidelines for lobbyists, and about fraud control, and about leaks. Attention to these matters is up front and serious.
Most of the young people take their jobs seriously, but they are not glum people. They are very Australian, they dress down on Casual Friday, and have morning teas together every day. They have i-pods, but get their work done. They seem to balance work and home, sport and family, education and deadlines. They are polite, and their smiles are kind. I will always be subject to my own naive and wishful thinking, but I think I know decency when I experience it. They are our Peak People, an achievment as important as the environmental accords that are now starting to gain consensus.
These are the people I think about when stories of child neglect and abuse, shootings and stabbings and binge drinking hit the media. Why can’t everyone be like these fine young people? Because it is from young people like these that the roots of tolerance and maturity and tough decision making will have to come. And partly because my own children are nothing like them, and have disappointed me so deeply, in a quiet way I am barracking for these new style public servants. I hope they feel my respect.
And do not think that these Peak People are flighty, or shallow, or even that their work is trivial. Three things strike me as characteristic of the work. First, the policies involved are very complex. They thread between market and social forces, cost-benefits and nation building. It changes quickly, there’s a lot to understand.
Second, the internal software of communications is also complex, often irritatingly so. Documents are saved and then can vanish, version control is a fine art, email and the intranet can turn into swamps, that you have to drag your mind through. There are no rubber boots for this quagmire.
Lastly, the processes are also complex. There are internal and external stakeholders, a range of documents to ‘feed in’ to the final report. There are new players, old players, people like me popping up and then fading away. Someone has to juggle all this. It can’t be easy.
And it isn’t going to be easy for Kevin, or Penny, or any of us. The poop is hitting the fan, in many ways and many places. They will need to be tough, as well as well intentioned. The well fed confident ones will have to persuade the lower orders that their sacrifices are for a good cause, and that they are evenly distributed.
Do our Peak People have a firm enough grasp on civilised discourse ? Is it just a fine coating over a more labile urge to survive? Or are most of us capable of the dignity we treasure so much in the national narrative – the fortunate life of Albert Facey, the Kokoda Trail, our Afghanistan sacrificies, the nurses, diggers and heros of our military shining? Let us hope so.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 11:24 am | Comments Off on Have We Hit Peak People? |
Filed under: Society

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