Magazine article Public Sector

A Sticky Issue

Magazine article Public Sector

A Sticky Issue

Article excerpt

"Wellington I hate you! I loathe you. Dear God, let this department be decentralised. Anywhere. Anywhere! Just get us out of Wellington. I'd even settle for Masterton."

So begins a rainy winter's Wellington day in Roger Hall's 1976 hit play Glide Time. Hall's depiction of a public service full of bumbling and inefficient yet likeable, decent people captured the imagination of the New Zealand public during the big-government Muldoon era, and has become a classic.

For years after, when discussing the politics of the public service, especially during the restructuring that occurred during the 1980s, Glide Time became the given example, the Hallmark of a bloated and moribund public service full of petty bureaucracy and needless red tape. The generation of neo-liberal reformers that followed would cite Glide Time as reality as they chorused that things "had to change". But as much as people laughed and sneered, there was no doubt about the public service's political neutrality. The way Roger Hall told it, the public service was useless whoever was in power.

We need our myths in this country ("it's a great place to bring up kids") and the Glide Time myth was one we clung to. I'm sure there were stores departments resembling the one where Hugh, Beryl and the other Glide Timers did very little but do the Dominion crossword, chat about sport, gossip, and ring Mum now and again. But even in the 'bad old days' there were areas of the public service run very well by competent people.

Unemployment was low and there was a wonderful social equality in a country where your boss might be earning half as much again as you, not 10 or 100 times the amount. And best of all, for those actually doing real work for the government, there were hardly any human resources or communication departments to deal with.

Even Roger Hall himself is no neo-conservative. At the heart of Glide Time is genuine affection for the characters and the place in which they work. Hall's later plays, such as Market Forces and The Share Club, were far more devastating about government restructuring and boom-and-bust capitalism than Glide Time was about 1970s public service.

But cultural myths are not to be tampered with. That's why many right-wing New Zealanders measure the success of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia by the number of foreign beers that became available for sale in the late 1980s rather than through the sad statistics that show little real growth except in the gap between rich and poor.

I am just old enough to remember some of the non-fictional characters who dominated the public service in the pre-Rogernomics era. Almost exclusively men, they would occasionally appear on TV, often in shortsleeved shirts with a bad tie and shorts and socks. They seemed like honest salt-of-theearth types, though they often displayed an alarming tendency for bureaucratic jargon as they quoted regulations and requisition form numbers at length.

So inspired was I by these types, that I even created a short-lived sketch comedy character, Ken Quango, based on them. Ken was not only a high-ranking public servant but his building's civil defence warden. In times of natural disaster, such as during an earthquake or fire, his co-workers could never actually leave his building because there were first so many regulations to adhere to and forms to fill out that eventually everyone would die in the inferno or be crushed in the earthquake because Ken would not allow them to evacuate until due process had been carried out.

During the mid 1990s I worked for a real-life Ken Quango in a quasi-government department. Fearsomely honest yet always friendly and possessing a great sense of humour, everyone liked Mr Quango. He certainly looked the type. Bad ties clashed with unkempt hair and walk-shorts. While Michael Fay and other Rogergnomes were privatising the economy in their clipped English Christ's College accents, Quango followed the rules diligently with an unashamed Kiwi drawl. …

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