Friday, September 18, 2009

The inexorable march of the bureaucrats

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 2009.)

I WAS startled to hear Michael Player introduced on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report recently as the acting deputy commissioner of police.

Mr Player is a career government PR man. When he’s not acting deputy commissioner, his designation in the police hierarchy is general manager of public affairs.

He is not, and has never been, to my knowledge, a sworn police officer. He was recently made a fellow of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s a spin doctor.

Mr Player’s rise to a position of power and influence within the police is symptomatic of a wider change that has transformed that department.

Under nine years of Labour government, the police were often suspected of being politicised. This arose not only from their enthusiastic embrace of political correctness, but also from the way they tip-toed around any alleged wrongdoing involving Labour politicians.

But while politicisation of the police under Labour remains only a suspicion, there can be little doubt that they have succumbed to the almost equally insidious curses of managerialism and bureaucratisation.

The rot set in when police commanders were re-desginated as managers and began talking about service delivery.

I recall going behind the scenes at Wellington police headquarters several years ago and noticing, with a sinking heart, that a wall was covered with elaborate flow charts that looked as if they had been lifted from a management textbook.

I knew then that the police had been captured by the dead hand of the human resources department. And where the HR department has gone, the PR department is invariably close behind. In the typical modern bureaucracy, these two departments are where much of the power resides.

This is not a personal attack on Mr Player. For all I know, he’s a splendid PR man, though cynics might deny that any such creature exists.

Neither am I suggesting there should be no outsiders within the police. It’s a tribal organisation and it would be unhealthy if the traditional police culture had everything its own way.

Besides, there is a precedent of sorts for Mr Player’s rise. Lyn Provost, an accountant with a background in auditing, had the rank of deputy commissioner for nine years before resigning recently to become Auditor-General. But she remained a backroom person, largely invisible to the public, whereas Mr Player seems to play an active role in day-to-day decision-making.

Significantly, the reason Mr Player was on Morning Report last month was to announce the abrupt reversal of a decision by police HQ to stop providing the media with the names of people convicted of drink-driving offences. The U-turn came after the forceful intervention of Police Minister Judith Collins, who made it clear she supported publication of offenders’ names.

Mr Player could have been excused for being red-faced. The dopey decision to withhold the information from the media - on the spurious pretext of "privacy" concerns - bore all the hallmarks of a bureaucracy more concerned with pettifogging political correctness than with deterring people from breaking the law.

Of all government departments, the police have arguably the greatest need of practical, experienced people able to make snap operational decisions in situations of extreme duress. But the inexorable march of the bureaucrats creates a danger that common sense and initiative will be hobbled by a risk-averse, tick-the-boxes mentality.

* * *

I USED to enjoy visiting Auckland and had little patience for the petty sniping that Auckland was constantly subjected to from other parts of the country. I took the view that all our major cities had their own quirks and virtues, and comparisons were pointless.

These days, however, I try to avoid Auckland. When I do go there, I can’t get out fast enough. It strikes me as a soulless, inhospitable place where people go about their business without a scintilla of warmth or friendliness.

Those old clich├ęs about Auckland being a city of surly, tight-faced people, all preoccupied with where their next buck is coming from, may be true after all. The Aucklanders I encounter make New Yorkers, once legendary for their supposed indifference to their fellow human beings, look almost promiscuously friendly and outgoing.

I exempt from this criticism Auckland’s obliging Auckland cab drivers, who do their best to make up for the lack of grace and courtesy displayed by their fellow citizens. But otherwise, it’s a city of people who give the impression they would sooner sever a limb than smile. Waiters, hotel receptionists and bus drivers all give the impression of having been trained at a hospitality school somewhere in the Balkans.

It’s a tired and grotty-looking city too, despite that magnificent harbour and some charming residential suburbs.

Queen Street has reportedly had $43 million spent on it over the past couple of years, but the effect is like plastering cheap makeup on the face of an ageing prostitute. And the much-vaunted cafes and restaurants along Ponsonby Rd, where Auckland’s pretend celebs gather in the hope of making the gossip columns, have all the style and flair of a Soviet gulag.

1 comment:

Vaughan said...

Crikey, it all fell apart after I left. Should have stayed!