Digression: Government Expenditure – Government Employees

Any employee of government would be familiar with the problems peculiar to their area – the “walking dead”, the top-heavy hierarchy, the frequent and prolonged breaks. But it is a mistake to state sweepingly that “all civil servants are slackers”. What usually happens is that a fraction of the employees do most of the work and could hold their own in the most competitive private company. A further substantial proportion do little work and are carried by their workmates. The remainder are various degrees of bosses and do little besides talk to each other, create paper, and frustrate their subordinates.

The management problem is peculiar to government service and arises in this way. It can take decades to rise to a high administrative rank during which time anyone with any talent or energy gets out to where promotion is faster and financial reward greater. The ones left behind, shuffling up the promotion ladder, are the plodders, the dullards, the less qualified.

In addition, people who stay in the service for years naturally expect to get promoted, so there accumulates a thickening layer of senior officers out of proportion to the number of junior ones at the “working” level. So there are too many bosses and they lack talent.

This top-heaviness can actually increase during periodic vote-catching campaigns to ‘reduce public service numbers’. The task of reducing staff is placed in the hands of management, who draw a fence around themselves and their favoured people and cut staff lower down at the coalface.

None of the faults with government service so far mentioned are unavoidable – they are what happens by default, when things are allowed to go their own way without active intervention.

What to do about the walking dead? It is easy to say “sack ’em” but a humane and practical solution must be found. If the “turkeys” are truly incapable of doing the work that their often substantial salary requires they should be retired on a disability pension. If they are capable of the work they must be made to do it.

Every civil servant should be required to fill a quota of work performed in a given period. So one job might be assigned a maximum time for completion of say, two hours, or another might be required to be done at the rate of, say, at least one hundred per day.

Persons consistently failing to work up to the standards laid down could be put on a modified salary regime where they are paid for work performed rather than for time spent in the work place.

Conversely, people consistently doing more than their share of the work could be encouraged and rewarded by bonuses and privileges.

Promotions must be strictly determined not by the number of officers having years of dutiful service behind them, but by the number of management positions actually required for maximum efficiency. Frustration of able officers who might be tempted to leave the service to gain advancement could be relieved by industrial democracy, as follows.

All management positions should be elective and would be for a limited but not too short term, say two or three years. Only persons with some minimum period of service, say six months, would be eligible to vote, but obviously persons from outside the department or altogether outside the service would be eligible and desired to stand and would have free access to their desired place of work in order to campaign for a management position in it.

People might say this couldn’t work, the service would collapse, people would get into office promising ever longer breaks and ever more indulgence of unauthorised ‘sickies’, slack timekeeping, and non-work activities. Presumably a parallel argument has been used in history by those opposing the development of parliamentary democracy with people electing their rulers by universal one-person-one-vote. Yet democratic countries function demonstrably better than dictatorships, whether of the proletariat or of some eccentric general.

Able people from outside the service would have to be attracted by salaries comparable with what they could command outside. This might appear to contradict the argument elsewhere in these postings against people getting salaries that allow them to consume far more than they need. This is because our present society contradicts what is necessary for a sustainable world economy. But the debt problem needs to be solved in the near future, in fact if it is not it won’t be solved at all; which means it must be solved in the context of societies similar to the way they ae at present, whereas the problem of people being able to consume far more than is necessary for them or desirable for the general economic welfare needs to be solved by such a radical restructuring of world society as will take a long time, being achievable only by many steps as by the mosaic method, evolution not revolution, discussed in the Foreword.

Having got rid of dead wood, set minimum productivity levels for everyone, reduced management to what is necessary, made people compete freely for management jobs, and made workers elect their management, one or both of two things will happen to government departments: (i) what used to be a heavy backlog and too much work will become possible to complete promptly and keep up to date using the existing staff; (ii) the reorganised department will be capable of far more work than can be foreseen for it to do. In the latter case, many staff will be redundant and some will have to be got rid of, redeployed, straight away without waiting for the kind processes of “attrition” by voluntary retirement or resignation of staff. This problem has struck and will continue to strike private and public organisations, and incorrect approaches are often taken to its solution.

The “first on, last off” principle might seem fair but some of the “last on” might be in more desperate need of a job and might find it more difficult to get another than many who have worked longer with the place. It is not a crime to have started working somewhere later than someone else and people should not have to suffer a penalty on that account. Also, some later starters might have special individual skills or they might occupy positions which are harder to fill.

Not very long ago, if circumstances arose necessitating large numbers of sackings, it was the women who were pushed out first. The arguments were “They’re married and ought to be at home being supported by and caring for their husbands and producing children to make the nation richer and stronger” or “They ought to be married and have a man to support them” or “They’re just filling in time till they get married” or “Their hormones make them unreliable and they talk all day instead of working”.

This injustice against women has been left behind in the dust of history in many countries but is still alive in many more. In many countries legal institutions have been created to end discrimination against women, but discrimination is still possible in myriad subtle ways that are harder for the law to reach. Women must generally be aware, take a continuing interest, and make noise against injustice. There are plenty of sympathetic males who would help, but the women must take the initiative.

A fairer system than hitherto of deciding who would be dismissed might score the employee according to the following criteria, not necessarily in this order:

  • How many dependents has the person? Can any of them become financially independent and how long will this take?
  • What are this person’s chances of getting another job?
  • How important is this person, not just in the position they occupy but in their personal qualities, to this place?
  • How long has this person been here (this criterion is all right to use in combination with others)?
  • How long was the person out of work before starting with us?
  • What are the person’s financial circumstances?

These criteria should be weighted according to importance and computed to a total score. If a hundred sackings were required, the hundred employees with the lowest scores would be given notice. It would be necessary to be quite firm about this, otherwise it could drag on and lose some of its cost-effectiveness.

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