Ministry talks piffle - or words to that effect

02:48, Mar 14 2012

Because I no longer teach I no longer hear from the Education Ministry. I do not miss its prose. It used to send me invitations that consisted mainly of abstract nouns. "Classroom Management Enhancement Workshop: a Professional Development Opportunity." That sort of thing. But I turned them down, because I was too busy teaching. And because they made me feel ill.

So when, on Sunday morning as I sat with the paper, I came across a ministry advertisement, I felt a twinge of what Proust might have described as the nausea of things past.

The ministry's "executive team" is seeking a deputy secretary. The post is an "exciting opportunity". Curious to know where the excitement lay, I read on. I also wanted to learn what the job consisted of, apart, that is, from the traditional tasks one might expect of a deputy secretary such as biscuit supply-chain assurance oversight and photocopier activation administration.

Well, it seems I'm out of touch. The dep sec has two main duties. One of these is to "make a difference to the NZ education system and educational achievement levels of all learners".

Let me be charitable and presume the difference the dep sec is required to make is a favourable one. If so, it's a remarkable job description. In the years to come every child in New Zealand will owe a debt to the dep sec.

The dep sec's other duty is to "focus on school age learner education design and implementation". That's six nouns in a row, five of them abstract. They merit a little study.


A "school age learner" means someone between the ages of 5 and 16. These people used to be known as children. Calling them school age learners does not wipe the snot from their noses or the grins from their faces.

"Education design and implementation" means planning an education system and making it happen. Which is what the ministry exists to do. Furthermore, design and implementation are the only two things you can do with any system. So the words are redundant and the job description means only that the dep sec will be required to focus on children's education.

The rest of the advertisement details the duties of the "executive team", and it is mostly piffle. The team has to provide "robust policy advice . . . to the appropriate ministers" as opposed to sickly policy advice to the inappropriate ministers. It is also "accountable for demonstrating strong leadership, engagement, influence, drive, and energy to the overall direction setting and management of the ministry and achievement of its results and outcomes to meet government expectations".

I reach for the red pen. What is added by the words strong, engagement, influence, energy and drive that isn't implicit in the word leadership? Right, that's five words gone. And we'll ditch "overall" because it adds nothing. So the team is required to "demonstrate leadership to the direction setting . . ." which makes no sense. Previously that lack of sense was hidden by the thicket of nouns.

Let's try to get to the nub of it. To "demonstrate leadership" is a pompous way of saying to lead. And to lead, by definition, means to set a direction. So the team's job is to "lead the management of the ministry and the achievement of its results and outcomes to meet government expectations".

Achievement, result and outcome mean the same thing. And none of them is needed. The original paragraph means only that the team's job is to "lead the ministry to achieve what the government wants". A simple statement of the obvious.

Such bureaucratic vacuousness matters. It makes the job seem more complex than it is. It fosters blather rather than action. It discourages clear thought. And it tends to separate the mandarins of bureaucracy from the actual world they inhabit.

So I have a little robust policy advice for any aspiring dep secs. Once a month at least step into a classroom, one full of grins and snot and children, and read to them from the latest ministry document about classroom management or achievement outcomes. It will be an education.