The road to Kafkaesque bureaucracy is paved with good intentions

By Stephen Easton

February 1, 2017

A motion blurred photograph of an empty hospital corridor

A single newspaper report yesterday took up the cause of two Western Australians who felt public servants had threatened them, and it wasn’t long before their minister popped up to try and put the fire out.

In Victoria, the ombudsman focused on one woman’s particularly distressing experience with the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages to highlight how traumatic it can be for people on the receiving end of unintentional service delivery stumbles, inadequate agency resourcing and administrative failures.

The two stories have very little in common, apart from demonstrating the truth behind T.S. Eliot’s wise aphorism that “most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions” and the high standards that public sector agencies are held to.

Loose language leads to light scolding

WA Minister for Disability Services Donna Faragher was flushed out by an article that amplified the complaints of two people who oppose the policy the public servants in question are bound to try and implement — privatisation of accommodation services for people with disabilities — and refuse to take part in the process.

A senior employee of the Disability Services Commission stands accused by the newspaper of threatening the legal guardians of severely disabled people with revocation of their guardianship — a charge which the agency denies, pointing out that only the WA administrative tribunal has the power to do so.

The report quotes an email saying the DSC would “seek to have another family member participate or have a decision maker appointe­d for that person” if the legal guardian refused to choose a new contracted accommodation provider.

Another legal guardian is then quoted explaining his opposition to the privatisation plan, and why his fears for the future of his ward moved him to tears, and the opposition repeats the claim about the agency “making threats” — although it is far from the clear that this was the public servant’s intention.

The responses of the commission and the minister to the news report don’t explain exactly what the official was trying to say, either. What is abundantly clear is that the recipient of the email found it upsetting.

In her response, Faragher said she was “concerned” to see the fragments of emails printed in the newspaper and that the agency head had assured her the email was not intended as a threat. She adds:

“I certainly do not condone any language that could be perceived as threatening a person who is questioning a government process.”

Distressing tale just one among many

In a very different situation, Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass focused on one very sad tale to highlight the human impact of problems with the state’s Births, Deaths and Marriages office that are common in government agencies.

Her full report puts a human face on those administrative issues, which were reflected in a spike in complaints about the agency, from the people whose lives were affected.

Glass showed clearly how distressing it can be for people going through very hard times when they receive conflicting advice and experience failures of communication from government agencies. She said the case “illustrates how uncertainty, distress and grief can be caused or prolonged” by poor record-keeping and administrative practices, lack of clear policies, agency under-staffing, long wait times on calls, delays in actioning requests and follow-ups, and poor complaints handling.

The parent agency, the Department of Justice and Regulation said:

“The Department has acknowledged that the Registry has been experiencing serious service delivery problems, and happily, matters are improving with more staff engaged, improved technology and the adoption of complaint handling procedures.”

Things work out terribly for customers of private businesses all the time due to administrative breakdowns, accidents, bad planning and any number of other issues.

But when the customers are members of the public and decisions are being made about their legal rights, responsibilities and entitlements by employees of the state or the Commonwealth, sometimes in a highly politicised context, the bar is set much higher. Public servants don’t set out to create situations like the one Deborah Glass described as a “bureaucratic netherworld” in her report, but they and their political masters are the only ones who can dismantle them and put friendlier structures in their place.

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