No risk Government

Recriminations over the ‘failed’ Novopay teacher payment system will further entrench no-risk bureaucracy. We should instead wonder whether Government should be doing some of these jobs at all. 

One of the heaviest political ironies is politicians urging bureaucrats to be more enterprising in the way they service the public. These are the same politicians who insist on “no surprises” and wave a stick around when their Ministries and agencies screw up.

Trying to make things better – being more innovative and enterprising – means taking risks. Risks means things might not work. Things not working makes politicians fear they won’t be elected. The fear of not being elected means politicians don’t take risks.

The problematic introduction of Novopay has led to a deep search for the culprits, and discussions about how it should have been implemented.

Similarly, a review of Government IT system security vulnerabilities has stimulated hand-wringing about ways bureaucracy install ICT projects.

Modern politicians hate risk. They hate mistakes. They play the archetypal “percentage” game… doing just enough to warrant a vote.

Politicians and bureaucrats take the wrong conclusions from mistakes. Inevitably they tighten up the systems for approving and managing projects. This installs greater layers of box ticking, slowing down and thwarting initiative without adding any new responsibility or project knowledge. 

The ‘business’ response to mistakes is to learn lessons about what works operationally, rather than what doesn’t work in project management. The bureaucratic response is to concentrate on what might not have worked in the project management process. The business approach is better because what works operationally is tangible, whereas the managerial stuff is very difficult to pin down in the emotive maelstrom of a failure.

It’s testament to the current supremacy of big government ideology that the response to failure of government projects is to do more government. My lesson is that the Government should attempt to do less. We should be asking; do we really need to be doing this at all?

Should central Government be paying teachers directly? If it was up to each school, or groups of schools, to manage payments, they’d use something like the gorgeous homegrown Xero. If there were problems they’d be sorted by someone you knew. As if to prove the point, the schools themselves have had to take the bulk of the processing work during the problematic introduction. I understand that some early childhood centres pay their teachers themselves using money “bulk” allocated by the Government.

This is a vicious circle. Politicians want to impress voters and citizens, so they dream up central government projects. Bureaucrats are hamstrung in carrying them out because politicians fear voter reprisals if something goes wrong.

Politicians should therefore consider the ultimate risk avoidance strategy – reduction of Government responsibility for so many parts of our lives.

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