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‘Right-sizing’ not clear cut

Being made redundant is not a pleasant experience – especially if you’re a member of that growing class of Kiwis who are just one or two paycheques away from being on the street.

But even for those who’ve managed to salt away enough savings to provide a buffer in the event their salary tap is suddenly shut off, losing a job is almost always a discombobulating, destabilising experience – not least because all too many of us have an unhealthy amount of what we regard as our ‘identity’ tied up in our occupation.

It’s not something you’d wish on anybody who hasn’t actively earned your undying enmity.

As such, anyone taking great delight as the new government’s long-signalled cuts to public service staff begin to take effect might want to think about having a good look around for their apparently misplaced empathy.

And in lieu of that, on the assumption that self-interest is their guiding light, such people might like to contemplate the economic knock-on effect that large job losses in the Wellington bureaucracy are likely to have on Wairarapa – including the region’s residents who commute to the capital to government jobs and the visitors coming over the hill from the other direction for holidays and events.

Other than the prospect – as flagged by Carterton Mayor Ron Mark last year – of a sudden increase in former state employees able to fill some vacancies in the region, there don’t appear to be any obvious or immediate upsides to the wave of public service redundancies for Wairarapa.

However.

The headline reason [tax relief] for seeking to reduce the public service headcount aside, there does seem to be a case for trimming back.

As Infometrics chief forecaster Gareth Kiernan has noted, “When you look at 33 per cent increase across the total public service over six years, compared to economy-wide employment growth, unless there is really strong justification around particular departments or ministries being under-resourced, you look at that and go ‘something is amiss there’.”

By the same token, economist Cameron Bagrie has observed that, “Despite a big increase … there doesn’t seem to have been a material increase in the delivery of core government services. The implication is that a whole lot of monitoring and paper shuffling action has taken place.”

Add to that a report yesterday from the NZ Herald’s always excellent Kate MacNamara showing that – despite the new government’s strongly semaphored cost-cutting intentions – government departments increased their staff by 4.1 per cent during the six months to December 31, 2023, to reach an all-time public service staffing high of 65,699, and one can’t help wondering whether those doing the hiring haven’t been engaged in a ‘Yes, Minister’ worthy tactic of stacking on some extra weight in anticipation of a lean metaphorical winter.

Arguably, much of the recent growth of the public service is an example of ‘Parkinson’s law’, which holds that the duration of tasks within a public administration, bureaucracy or officialdom expand to fill their allotted time spans, regardless of the amount of work to be done.

The reason for this phenomenon is attributed to two things: officials’ preference for subordinates over rivals, and the tendency of officials to make work for each other.

Given the often-glacial pace at which government ‘work programmes’ tend to move, it’ll presumably be quite some time before we start to see any evidence about whether this has been the case.

In the meantime, sympathy for those directly impacted by this ‘right-sizing’ exercise is surely the appropriate response.

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