Why government is a mug's game

Collecting public service coffee cups

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 15:11 13/04/2014
public sector mugs
ROSS GIBLI/FAIRFAX NZ
MUG SHOT: "Muglet O'Hara", spokesman for Mugs of the Civil Service, shows off some of the collection.

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Is the civil service a mug's game? Three Government department workers are pondering that question - in their tea breaks.

The anonymous trio is collecting public sector coffee cups for an art project called Mugs of the Civil Service.

"In the same spirit as an Official Information Act request, it's time to fling open staffroom cupboards across the government quarter and showcase the banal, beautiful and sometimes bizarre crockery choices, " says a call for submissions (applications will be assessed in five to 21 working days).

Fifteen donations have, so far, come from the ministries for the Environment, Education, Justice and Social Development. The trio say they're still waiting for a response from the "holy grail" - the Prime Minister's Office.

A spokesman, who would only identify himself as Muglet O'Hara, said the project was half tongue in cheek.
"But it's also about trying to find some meaning in this meaningless job. It's one chance for people to express their identity. People bring their mug in, and maybe it's one of those Penguin Publishing classics mug, and it says 'hey, look, I'm also literary - I read'.

"We have two small octagonal ceramic mugs which look like they're part of one of those 1980s dinner sets. One white, one black. According to the person who loaned them, they used to be called Ebony and Ivory, but due to changing social mores in the early 2000s, they are now referred to as Obsidian and Ivory."

The project organisers have requested name and government sector anonymity "for fear of upsetting the State Services Commission . . . it is an election year".

Latest figures, released last week, put the number of fulltime public servants in Wellington at 18,493 - 900 more than the year before.

"Two of us had started in the job, and we were having one of our many coffee breaks and we noticed how strange some of the mugs were. And we started to wonder, if they're so good here, what are they going to be like in other organisations?

"There's this obsession in New Zealand about accountability of tax dollars, and we thought it would be funny to frame this in terms of the Official Information Act - we want to see what the money's being spent on. But at the same time, people are trying to keep their budgets low. Nobody wants to have the flashiest mugs, because that looks bad."
There was a perception the public service was bureaucratic and dreary, "but about 99 per cent of the jobs require a tertiary qualification. A lot of our friends in Wellington work in the public service, but everyone studied the liberal arts - art history, classics, script writing.

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"There's this really great quote from [Russian author] Vladimir Nabokov. He's looking for a 'gleam in the gloom'. I think that's what we're trying to provide to our wider colleagues in the service."

- Mugs of the Civil Service will be displayed in Wellington from May 2-4, at Tory St's Concerned Citizens Collective.

- Fairfax Media

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