Management often theatre of the absurd

Last updated 08:11 23/09/2012

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OPINION: Pared-down government departments feed the consultancy sector.

Some of my best friends are managers, their skills and personal style making a huge difference not only to the success of the ventures they direct, but to the lives and careers of those they manage.

Efficient, humane and visionary managers, like other leaders, are an indispensable necessity in oiling the wheels of our society. But surely I won't be alone in noticing how that necessary function has, in recent times and in certain quarters, been elevated into something resembling a modern cargo cult - one that has inveigled its way into institutional cultures both public and private.

As an example I offer pretty much any city council, and the bigger they are the worse the offending. I'm not diminishing for a moment the value of the work their staff do, how good they are at it, or even how hard and conscientiously they deploy their skills. I'm simply questioning the price.

It is absurd that we tolerate a system wherein the managerial capabilities of council functionaries employed to look after the assets and oversee the services of ratepayers, are remunerated at more than twice the rate of the prime minister, at well over that of the chief justice, and at many times the wage packet of a middling hospital doctor or school principal.

In difficult economic times such out-of-whack rewards simply encourage the cynical, who might be inclined to the simplistic but plausible view the primary function of such modern miracle- workers is to manage themselves into unassailable positions of influence, power and wealth, while shedding as much of the rest of the workforce as possible.

Having done that, the next trick is to engineer their own redundancies, but in such a way that they leave the venture with an expertise deficit - one that will require the intermittent employment of consultants.

Surprise, surprise, we learn, for instance, that pared-down government departments have over the last year or so become generous benefactors to the consultancy sector, and that no sooner have they left the building than do many of these former managers reappear on extremely lucrative 'contracts".

The word 'consultant" used to describe someone with a depth of experience and expertise in a particular field who could be called upon to deploy and relay some of that knowledge and ability. Now every second unemployed student of business is a 'consultant". It's become a bit like 'company director", even if it doesn't yet appear quite as frequently on police charge sheets.

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Coincident with the inexorable rise, and simultaneous devaluation of this proliferating breed, has evolved the corruption of the word 'consult". Take Education Minister Hekia Parata's plans for the 'restructuring" of Christchurch schools. The city has been left dumbstruck by the scale of closures and mergers proposed.

The unveiled plan - sorry, 'proposal" - involves grouping the region's 214 schools into 41 'learning community clusters", with 13 schools marked for closure, 18 likely to merge, and seven to relocate.

Many evidently thought they had been involved in a consultative process with the ministry. They were. It's just that what modern management deems to be consultation is perhaps not what the rest of us might consider it to be. Typically, what it means to the former is developing a plan, presenting it, then seeking feedback and input into it. This will generally be followed by an announcement that affected people have been 'consulted", some mainly cosmetic changes incorporated, and others discarded as plainly unworkable.

What the rest of us might consider it to mean is open and free-ranging prior discussions, as a result of which a plan is formed.

Many in the Christchurch education sector - whose most influential members just happened to be in Australia for a conference as the announcement was made - were gobsmacked. Reassurances that it was only a proposal appeared to ring hollow.

It is true that the education needs of the embattled but brave city have been altered radically by the earthquakes. And that had to be addressed. Schools had to be closed, others merged. There doesn't appear to have been too much argument about that. Where the anger and some of the bitterness resides is in how the process was 'managed" - in particular by extremely well- remunerated bureaucrats.

It would be fair to say that by any honest, uncorrupted measure of the word, it simply wasn't.

- Sunday Star Times

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