Public service and public toilets



Having been a social and political commentator for a while, I remember the day some years ago when someone told me to go get a job in the public sector “and put your money where your mouth is.” The advice came from someone who’d been in the public service for nearly 15 years and believed I had little knowledge of the challenges people in those roles faced. To my delight (lol) an opportunity came up so I thought I’d give it a shot seeing as it was in the area of Pasifika education and youth development. It certainly provided some helpful insights into the culture of the public service and I’m glad that I came to my senses and eventually left.

Leaving the university for employment in the public service was an exciting move for me taking my love of learning, evidence-based approaches and passion into a policy-setting environment. Well that wasn’t my experience. In fact, my hopes for this role and the reality were worlds apart. I came under managers and management structures that discouraged and many times silenced critical thought and reflection; advancing people and ideas that were institutional, disconnected and lacking compassion. And what saddened me most was that many of my own people – people of Pasifika heritage – were choosing promotion and status over the desire to influence social change. And whilst I don’t begrudge the very real need to get a bit more money to pay your bills, I grieve the way so many of our own give in to the pressures of a neo-colonial workplace.

This working-marriage was never going to work and after a few short years, I was gone. In fact things became so inglorious that my then regional manager chose to tell it was time to seek other employment opportunities granted all the turmoil I’d caused, while he stood unzipped over the men’s urinal. Talk about taking the piss out of something. Admittedly, I did meet some amazing people with a real heart to affect social change. But more often than not, like me, they were on the factory floor of the public service squeezed of their voice, personalities and aspirations. We certainly had each other to draw strength from, but the culture of the place is so hierarchical and linear that it bleeds your soul.

The state services code of conduct has some underpinning principles like integrity. fairness, respect, neutrality and professionalism. So I struggled to understand why the culture of the place from senior management ‘down’ was insecure, dishonest, inconsistent and culturally unsafe. Perhaps this will lead me to a chapter on the gross shortcomings of managerialism within the public service, which promotes like-minded, paper-pushing and lacklustre people and practices? Of further concern for me personally is the sad reality that so many of my own people are caught in this neo-colonial rat-race to the ‘top’ only to realise it’s unfulfilling, empty and a complete myth. Tomorrow I’ll be supporting a dear friend who’s going to mediation against a public service employer, who showed them the door because that individual chose to stand up to their dishonesty and cultural hypocrisy. The neo-liberal scrap-heap for people like my mate who actually give a damn about Pasifika people.

Writing this piece reminded me of a comment made in my original induction when I joined the state service. A man who’d spent many years as a bureaucrat in Wellington said – in this place you can do shit-all, relax on a permanent contract and see that bank account fill up faithfully every fortnight. Real leadership fills a team with the necessary hope, practical and often courageous steps required for social transformation. It addresses the social inequalities all too common in many parts of our community and finds ways to facilitate their pursuit to reach their full life-potential. Surely, that is what it means to be a ‘public servant’?



  1. People don’t want original ideas, innovative thinking or, God forbid, critical thought. They want conformists. They want, in the words of George Carlin, “obedient workers” – someone who will placidly accept the status quo, who won’t rock the boat, and who will never, even under the most dire circumstances, tell the plain unvarnished truth, because really, who wants to hear that shit when you’ve got all those paper clips to inventory, and all those reams of paper to shuffle about?

    The public sector sounds rather a lot like the private sector, to be honest.

    • I’ve always found it worse in the private sector. Conformity and doing what the boss says rules in the private sector.

    • Teaching. The weird thing is “people don’t want original ideas, innovative thinking or, God forbid, critical thought. They want conformists” in state schools. They want teachers to do what they’re told. They want all kids to fit into some pre-determined pattern.

      The weird thing is that then people scream out the the state system is conformist and they (we) have to have schools that are innovative, creative, and do things in ‘different’ ways. They say all kids are different and should be treated as if they’re individuals on some unique path.

      And that is to be achieved by having charter schools. Especially charter schools where they line all the kids up in military uniforms in military formation and make them conform in a strict everyone-is-the-same sort of way.

      Ain’t it a weird world?

      • National plainly only see people as statistics.

        Every Nat MP quotes stats like nothing. Statistics can be falsified. Very easily might I say. You do a survey on 10,000 people. You choose what people to survey and don’t go about it random.

        As you can probably guess, you choose the people who will favor your survey.

        Then you suddenly find out that 86% of people are happy in NZ.

  2. Sounds like corporate Auckland.

    Sounds like pretty much every reasonable sized workplace I’ve ever had experience in.

    Sounds like NZ management all over actually.

    Which is why I’ll never work for anyone else ever again. It’s a soul destroying bullshit waste of your life.

      • More to the point, dear Gosman – are you running your own enterprise? And how many employees have you?

        Or is it still in the pipe-dream phase?

      • Actually, Gosman, I have, in the past.

        So what does that have to do with the issue at hand except some sort of smarmy deflection?

        Contrary to your ACT values – which won less than 1% of the vote last year, citizens expect various public services in this country.

        You don’t have to run a business for that.

        Oh, by the way, I presume you’ve set up your own blogsite?


        Well, what are you doing here then?

  3. I’ve seen this culture too Efeso but there are still a great many people working tirelessly within the system to deliver services to kiwis despite Nationals attempts to sabotage and use public servants for political ends

  4. Any time I had dealings with the Health Department in my role as Chair of a Medical research ethics committee, I found that many of the so-called policy analysts were too young to have had any life experience and therefore totally unsuited to being able to write policy that affects peoples lives as dramatically as a nasty brush with our health system. Get staff who have worked elsewhere and are older than just out of university.

    • Here, here. Twice I have worked in an organisation that was ‘restructured’ by management consultants. In each case, the people doing the work were mostly under 30. Not only that, most had no experience of the sector and some were migrants with little understanding of the local work culture. The methodology was basically one of two choices: a. Strip out the admin or b. strip out the experienced (qualified) staff who are expensive and replace them with cheap admin. Hopefully not both at the same time!

    • Dorothy, that brings up the problem (I refuse it to call it an “issue”) of lost collective institutional wisdom/experience. The loss of so many older, skilled, experience staff leaves us with people who’ve not had the same learned experiences.

      It results in having to reinvent the wheel time and time again, and a country where we apparently can’t build water-tight houses or run safe industries.

      Every time National promises a reduction in the state sector, it is not not people losing their jobs, but also our nation losing collective institutional wisdom.

      Short term ‘gain’ for long term loss, if ever there was one.

  5. I did 24 years of OE in the UK, public and private sector, and my experience is pretty much the same. My own direct managers were excellent and dedicated to a life of public service (there are some left) but I could see that above them was a layer of self-serving bureaucrats and politicians whom my bosses had to suck up to. It was pretty demoralising all round.

    When I decided to return to NZ I vowed never to become a cog in the corporate or public sector wheel again. I started my own business and am very happy with the results. I can contract my time at a good price and without having to compromise my values or standards. I have turned down work that I didn’t feel was right or was under priced.

  6. The “Public Service” has a long time ago degenerated to being nothing else but a useful, yes essential vehicle, of each government of the day, to push for and implement whatever political changes they want to bring about in our society.

    So from the top down, from the Chief Executives down to the front line workers, they are given the message: “Do as you are told, shut up, and get moving with what we expect from you”.

    Social engineering, cutting back services while charging higher fees for them, gathering taxes wherever they can be found, and bringing cultural, social and economic changes in administration, day to day service delivery, in education, health and welfare, that are the realities we find.

    Naturally that brings about the environment that Efeso did encounter.

    And I guess the PSA could do more than what they do, rather being single mindedly focused on ensuring basic workers’ rights and pay increases now and then (for their members only), but they have settled for what they do.

    After the shootings at a WINZ Office in Ashburton their leaders were quick in demanding more protection for their members, and they did not even bother considering the possible reasons for increased threats, abuse, violence, and then even two killings, committed by “clients”.

    Hence we got more security staff, a zero tolerance policy, and whenever a WINZ client just raises the voice, they are told, shut up, or we call the police and trespass you.

    They are ALL out of touch with the lives of so many of the people they are meant to “serve”, as being a public servant means no more than being a more or less willing mercenary for the government, to do what they want them to execute.

    So most will simply see it as a paying job, and nothing else, focus on their pay packets, future personal goals, and care about little else.

    Good luck Efeso, with whatever new career or activity you have chosen. I do not blame you for having made that decision.

  7. “So I struggled to understand why the culture of the place from senior management ‘down’ was insecure, dishonest, inconsistent and culturally unsafe.”

    I too have found this while working for the government. I also experienced a lot of racism. Especially from higher bosses…

  8. NZ suffers from some of the worst management I have come across in nearly 50 years of work here & in the UK. The route of the problem is that personnel management training is lacking. Too many people are promoted to be managers and then left ‘to get on with it!’ with no training in how to deal with people. So many are culturally insensitive, skills-lacking bullies. Customer service is ignored by many. Those business’s that do invest in their employees, train them well, pay them properly, treat customers properly, grow and are successful. The public sector is full of ‘jobs-worthies’ who couldn’t give a damn about their attitudes and their responsibilities. The rest who are good people, end up disenchanted, over worked and ultimately leave. It’s all very sad. PS – I’m now retired and take the dog for long walks down the beach……….

  9. There was something about the Fourth Labour Government and its appalling policies that attracted some seriously vile, scrambling, tertiary-trained, sneering, and thoroughly heartless people into the public service. They were followed by a burst sewer-load of clones. The Righteous Ones. Proper and Decent.

    Once upon a time the ancient Department of Social Welfare (DSW for short) actually used to help people. The Labour Department used to have effective workplace inspectors and assisted people to find employment. Damn’ dinosaurs!

    Well. That sort of socialist rubbish had to go. Efficiency! Stand on someone else’s own two feet. Scramble. Claw. Kick.

    And they did. And you can see the dead hand of the public service stifling any sign of life in society and the economy. Hopeless bureaucrats, but ideal for the unpleasant work they do. They multiply anywhere there is public money and high office to grasp.

    Hair straighteners, anyone?

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