Jane Clifton: Blind them with jargon

by gabeatkinson / 17 November, 2012
Buzzwords are exhausting, but in recent failures of bureaucracy, three little words might have saved lives and a lot of heartbreak.
Cartoon by Chris Slane

Business Development Minister Steven Joyce is a man of many talents – and one of them is undoubtedly the generation of bureaucratic jargon and the ability to enforce earnest adherence to it by all concerned. Thanks to him, public servants in the newly “federated” Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) now routinely and with perfectly straight faces discuss whether they have made progress in “Result Areas 9 and 10” of the Better Public Services five-year charter – Result Areas 1-8 being the preoccupation of other departments. Result Areas 9 and 10, for the record, are making the public service a “one-stop-shop” experience for businesses, and ensuring the public can do as much as possible of its business with the Government online.

Regrettably, although there are approaching 70 separate “things” (to use a term coherent to those who don’t speak Parseltongue) that Joyce has ordained must happen, only 10 of these have been assigned a Result Area. Otherwise it would have been fun to have a Result Area 51, dealing with visitors from outer space (an eventuality for which we as yet have no plan, although we’re possibly getting useful experience with Kim Dotcom). Trouble is, assessing what is going on behind all this Result Area busyness is like visiting Rome or Florence off-season and finding everything you’d looked forward to seeing is under tarpaulin behind the notice, “Chiuso per lavori”.

What’s not yet clear is whether Joyce’s elaborate scaffolding of lists, goals and action plans will one day be dismantled to reveal a magnificent edifice of achievement, or whether it is to shield the sad fact that in an economy like this there’s precious little money with which to make things happen. His last word to Parliament on this was not enlightening. “The Government [has] released the Building Infrastructure progress report, the fourth of six Business Growth Agenda reports. This brings together 67 separate initiatives the Government is undertaking to deliver the resilient, efficient and co-ordinated infrastructure networks demanded by a modern economy.”

According to the latest tranche of Government terminology, in a modern economy things should be organised into “Hubs”, “Precincts,” “Clusters”, “Centres of Excellence”, the aforementioned “One-stop-shops” and even nifty “Kiosks” (which, disappointingly, are to sell neither ice creams nor postcards, although as it turns out that would have been an improvement). Public servants tell me there is also a brisk dialogue around “communities of practice” and “federation”. As best I can discern, this simply means it’s a neat idea for people with similar or intersecting things to do to work together or more closely, and preferably in a sensible place for whatever sort of work it is.

After six Business Growth Agenda Reports – that’s just two more to come, a bit like waiting for the final Harry Potters – we might be a little the wiser about who these people are and whether they’ve managed to do it.


Meanwhile, however, we seem to get repeat installments of The Deathly Hallows. We are seeing sorry accounts of quite massive failure in hubsville and one-stop-shop-land. Welfare payment kiosks are under tarps after it was found a pre-existing system loophole allowed any old Tom, Dick or blogger with a quite rudimentary knowledge of computer systems to nose around everybody else’s documentation. This is what’s known as a One-Stop-Shop-Stop.

The new Novopay system for teachers, which took years of planning, has been rechristened Nopay by Winston Peters, having persistently failed to pay thousands of teachers for weeks on end, causing immense hardship and taking up to half of some principals’ time. The Education Ministry faces a massive bill, both for penalties incurred when teachers’ mortgage and other payments have failed, and – if there is any justice – in interest for the withholding of all monies owed. Principals are also billing for the extra time they’ve had to spend on admin cock-ups rather than on children’s education. This may be a hub, but not of excellence. And it turns out that only 12 victims of the leaky homes menace have been paid out under the Government/ local authority resolution scheme and an utterly feeble 300-odd more cases have made some progress through that system. Here, one gets the word “cluster”, but only with a second, rude word alongside it.


The towering failure, however, turns out to be the supervision of mine safety under the old Department of Labour. This has now been “federalised” under Joyce’s new Mbie empire, but its new chiefs are having to trace ancient tails of accountability, nonetheless, with every expectation that the state could be held legally liable. Shorthanding the – for a change – extremely comprehensive inquiry’s report, the department misconstrued too tightly the bounds of its responsibility and left too much discretion to mining companies. How public officials come to lose the plot as badly as this is a risky thing to generalise about. Typically, they are hag-ridden by ministers demanding efficiencies and – in the case of National politicians – that they stay out of the face of business.

But to pull on a thread common to most cock-ups, there always seems to be an intense concentration on the means, but an almost uninterested attitude to the ends. When in the 1980s, the Government introduced a new sweep of jargon that included “inputs”, “outputs” and “outcomes”, there was much eye-rolling and general scepticism – as well there might be. It was an era jam-packed with such ephemera, and along with puffybanged hairdos, footless Lurex tights and cellphones as portable as iron lungs, such jargon quickly faded from vogue. Little did we know that of all the trendy ideas we tried on, those three simple, glib little terms would have come in really useful had we hung onto them and forgotten most of the subsequent jargon.

Pretty much every Government headache – from such long-run policy aches as superannuation and leaky homes, to sudden catastrophes like Cave Creek, the Canterbury TV building and Pike River – has had at its heart a public-sector failure to relate inputs and outputs to outcomes in a meaningful way. In Cave Creek’s case, a system in which handy jobs-worths regularly bestrode the conservation estate inspecting things like bridges and fences to see if they were safe was seen as lumpen and inefficient – high input, low output – and was abolished in favour of a more streamlined, centralised idyll: low input, lower output.

Actually, as we learnt at the expense of a group of young people, frequent manual inspection was not only the most efficient, but the only way to get the desired outcome: public safety. With Pike River, it was wrongly assumed the department’s lighterhanded input, matched by the company’s surely self interested input – for aside from the matter of workers’ welfare, no mine company is cavalier about the risk of explosions, for purely commercial reasons – would be sufficient for the outcome. Somehow, no one seems to have started from the outcome – absolute belt-and-braces mine safety – and worked back. The lurking suspicion that if we’d done things that way, some of the outcomes would have been too expensive in terms of inputs needs to be examined with brutal honesty. And how about a Result Area 11: the appointment of Jargon Czar to enforce a moratorium on all new catchphrases.
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