Thursday, 1 September 2022

Mclaughlan on the administrative state

There's a lot going wrong. Danyl Mclauchlan documents a few of the problems in an essay for The Spinoff, building a case that they're all symptoms of government administration being run for the benefit of government administrators. 

  • Giant shortage of nurses; nobody bothers to put nursing on the priority list for automatic residence.
  • Health system falling apart for want of doctors and nurses; $11 billion project to reform the health bureaucracy;
  • $200 million so far on reforming the polytechs, the Chief Exec of the merged entity disappeared before resigning, and the whole thing is set to fall apart;
  • $120 million for business cases for Let's Get Wellington Moving, while Wellington's infrastructure is collapsing;
  • The fire service got centralised at considerable expense and is now falling apart;
  • ...but wait, there's more! Danyl writes:

In the past few months the government has created a new anti-terror research centre, committed $300 million to replace the school decile rating system with an equity number, created a a new ministry for disabled people, a new national health provider, a new health authority for Māori, a new ambassadorship for Pacific gender equality, a new supermarket watchdog. It’s hard at work creating a new mega-sized public media entity – estimated cost $350 million – and establishing four new regional wastewater entities at an estimated cost of $296 million (the total three waters reform is priced at about $2 billion). It has purchased Kiwibank for $2.1 billion. 

Some or all of these might turn out to be worthy enterprises but there’s a huge assumption in this government and on the left more broadly that they can only be Good Things – that questioning the rapid expansion of the administrative state can only be right-wing hate speech, part of a covert neoliberal plot to gut health, education, welfare. 

Aren’t we seeing an erosion in state capacity alongside all this centralisation and expansion? Aren’t outcomes in health, education and welfare trending down rather than up? What’s going on? You can’t have effective public services without bureaucracies, but it’s not clear that the torrents of money flowing into them are delivering more value to the public or to the marginalised communities some of them are named after. It’s almost as if the primary role of the administrative state is shifting from serving the people to the redistribution of wealth to the staffers, lawyers, PR companies, managers and consultancy firms that work in them, or for them. A billion dollars a year in public sector consultancy is an awful lot of money when you’re running out of teachers and nurses because you don’t pay them enough, and the fire trucks are breaking down.

The whole essay deserves reading. 

I'm not sure whether the underlying thesis is right. A permanent managerial class may have taken over, but there's no reason it has to be as stupid as New Zealand's has been. 

The people in the civil service aren't that different from the ones who were there under the last government. Many were appointed under the last government. Peter Hughes has spanned multiple governments. 

Danyl again:

Lasch mourns the decline of the mid-20th century socially democratic left; the working class movement that built the modern welfare state. And he notes that the PMC often imitates their rhetoric but primarily employs the state as a means to appropriate the public’s wealth for themselves while defecting from its core institutions. He notes: “They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies… In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life. Their only relation to productive labour is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerised models of reality.”

And this disconnection from the physical world and their fellow citizens means their politics is increasingly therapeutic rather than material; it’s the politics of personal self-esteem, emotional wellbeing, self-expression, self validation, relentless positivity. Jacinda Ardern gave a nice demonstration of this in a recent interview on TVNZ’s Q+A with Jack Tame. When asked about her government’s failure to deliver across multiple policy areas and what she’d learned from these mistakes, she replied: “You know what, I would not ever change the fact that we have always throughout been highly aspirational. We have always focused on how we can make New Zealand better…  In setting out a vision for what that should look like, you will still hear me talk about New Zealand as a place that should be free of child poverty. Absolutely, because anything less in my mind… anything less demonstrates that we don’t believe that things can and need to improve.”

Danyl's dead right that vision and aspiration have been front and centre, with delivery left as afterthought at best. But I don't think that's entirely down to the bureaucrats. One of the first things that Labour did, on taking office, was abolish the targets that the previous government had set on the public service. They abolished accountability while setting aspiration as end in itself. 

Maybe it's the public sector's fault for being too ready to let Ministers get high on their own supply, but even in cases where the Ministries have been courageous in providing advice Ministers didn't want to hear, it didn't make any damned difference. MBIE warned about the problems in Fair Pay Agreements; government wanted to push ahead anyway. 

I tend to think this stuff starts at the top.

If the Minister of Finance demands evidence on value-for-money in adjudicating between different budget bids, because there will always be more bids than there's space to accommodate, that drives demand for rigour in analysis. If the Government wants everything put through a soft-focus wellbeing lens instead, then that razor gets dulled. And if you combine it with a ludicrously soft budget constraint where government borrows $50 billion, nominally for Covid, and then spends it on any darned thing that passes a comms test, you'll get what we've had. 

And it worked for the government for a while. But the Gods of the Copybook Headings eventually return. 

It all looks pretty bleak. Europe's heading for disaster if the energy futures market is anything to go by. Covid shocks were bad but what happens when European factories supplying critical parts into NZ supply chains can't afford to run? There's terrible mess ahead, we can't afford for policy to continue to be this persistently stupid, and there's no reason to hope that policy will stop being this persistently stupid.

What's perhaps even more depressing is everywhere else looks even worse.

How much ruin is there in a country?

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