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Public Sector Informant : PSI
THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 3 [MAY 2010] GREY 18287 [SOCIAL TRENDS:STEPHEN B ARTOS] Fast-food politics for a gluttonous body politic Spinning out of control Australia needs a bureaucracy that resists the frenetic pace and demands of the news cycle Gimme more: The Australian electorate collectively exhibits what's known as the ''what have you done for me lately?'' syndrome. A shared difficulty makes us happier than an instant solution . . . Calling on government to fix our problems may paradoxically make us less happy It seems like it's just one darn thing after another. Last month, the Moran review, Ahead of the Game, was at the forefront. Rapidly, health reform became the core issue, and the biggest challenge for the public sector. Now the Henry review, the most important and far reaching reform of taxation in decades, has been published. How- ever, it is a week to the budget -- so tax reform, too, will be overtaken shortly by the budget announce- ments. If the experience of the longevity of the budget in recent years continues, those announce- ments in turn will attract attention for a bare week or two before something else new is announced and takes their place. Not that these are trivial. They are crucial both for the nation and for the public service. Health reform has the potential to reshape the distribution of effort, responsibility and account- ability across the nation. Tax reform, the Henry review, will affect not only the revenue-collecting agencies (notably the Australian Taxation Of- fice) but also has implications for most other areas of government. There is also a backlog of previous announcements still to be implemen- ted. Think of the Government 2.0 Taskforce; it had the potential to transform the way government does its business and hugely improve performance. Unfortunately, it, too, seems to have been run over by the steamroller of events and forgotten; although, as with other public sector reforms, work may be under way behind the scenes. It is tempting to think of this slew of announcements as a pre-election phenomenon. Some of it is -- recent announcements of bad news and discontinued programs follow in the best traditions of ''Take out the Trash Day'' (one Friday in episode 13 of The West Wing, when all the bad news is lumped together to get it out of the way). However, the practice of incessant waves of policy announce- ments is not recent; it dates back at least a decade, with the adoption by former primer minister John Howard of what journalist Paul Kelly described as the ''permanent cam- paign'' approach to governing. The simple explanation is that this is all driven by the modern 24-hour media cycle. Announcements are needed to dominate the news, and each day's topic needs to be different in order to capture attention. Like all simplifications, this is partly true. Many of the key players in the media and politics have joined together in a death spiral of increasingly frenetic activity to spin out more news at faster and faster rates. At times, it seems they have a shorter attention span than your average goldfish. More fundamentally though, why are they doing it? It can't be for amusement. It is surely not fun for the media advisers who get up at 4am to prepare the day's media schedule, or the journalists who never have time to learn about and understand the issues involved before they have to move on to the next story. The media equation includes both supply and demand -- thus, the frenetic work reflects on not only those who produce it but also what we, the public, demand. Ours is a culture of instant gratifi- cation. We have turned to fast food in record quantities over the past 30 years; so it is with the culture of fast politics. As an electorate we collec- tively exhibit the ''what have you done for me lately?'' syndrome. For those who don't know it, this is one of the most retold jokes in politics. It comes from the home of fast food, the United States, where a congressman is trying to persuade a reluctant rural voter to his cause. He says, ''Remem- ber, Sam, I won your farm loan for you; I found jobs for both your children; I helped get your brother out of jail; I had a road built right to your farm gate.'' The voter replies, ''Well, that's all true enough, but what have you done for me lately?'' In Australia, we see the syndrome in our lack of focus on the recession we didn't have. The attention given recently to unintended consequences of infrastructure spending programs, regrettable as they are, misses the important fact that, unlike most of the world, we avoided a recession. The US unemployment rate, at a bit more than 10 per cent, is double ours. Much of Europe (Greece, Spain and Portugal come to mind) continues to suffer hugely from the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Keeping people in employment is a huge policy achievement -- yet, for all the attention it has received of late, it might as well have been done last century as last year. We prefer to know what the government is going to do for us today. If there is nothing in particular that government is actually doing right now, we want an announcement that looks like action. This trend also is not new: it is part and parcel of the permanent cam- paign strategy. Instant gratification is our prevail- ing mode of existence. We see it in fast food, relationships, entertain- ment, education (these days passing a course quickly is more important than learning), even -- if you are reading this online -- in communications, where a 10-second wait seems an eternity. We want everything right now, or sooner if possible. If some- thing goes wrong, rather than seeking ways to remedy it for ourselves we call on government to fix it for us. But does it make us happier? Not at all. The world's leading positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, has studied what makes people truly happy. It turns out that authentic gratification -- as opposed to mere pleasure -- is anything but instant. It requires concentration and hard work. We need to face hard tasks, and reap the rewards of succeeding through effort. He particularly criticises the ''self-esteem'' movement; in edu- cation, for example, children do not always succeed. We ought not pre- tend that everyone is a winner -- sometimes we fail, and have to learn from failure. This finding is supported at a whole-of-community level. A shared difficulty makes us happier than an instant solution. Londoners were happier at the height of the Blitz, and during post-war rationing, than when they became opulently rich in later decades. Calling on government to fix our problems may paradoxically make us less happy. It is difficult to see a way out of this problem. Like fast food, no matter how much we are told it is bad for us, the trends show we ignore the advice. There is, however, a solution if we allow the public service freedom to develop policy in a more considered fashion. Although politics must follow the mood of the country, the public service has the capacity, if governments are willing to allow it, to think through the difficult, long- term problems, and pay concentrated attention to them over many years. We cannot blame government and ministers for focusing on the short- term problems put before them. Nor can we blame them for picking up on the popular mood in favour of quick- fix, easy solutions. These are the mainstay of politics. The public service, however, faces different pressures. It can consider both immediate and more distant prior- ities; should it neglect the long term, and let the well of policy solutions run dry, society is the worse for it. Creative, tolerant and generous thinking is a source of happiness in individuals, Seligman says, even more so when we apply ourselves to challenging and difficult tasks. The same can be said of a public service. This argument has an important implication for ministers. We know the immediacy in which you operate, that a week is a long time in politics, that, according to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, your staffers live in dog years. The public service can and does respond to these immediate pressures, but should also be allowed time and space to address harder tasks that require serious thought. Stephen Bartos is a director at LECG and a former senior public servant. email@example.com
PSI - September