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Like Russian nesting dolls Auckland Council secretaries need secretaries

That’s right – the Auckland Council’s CEO has a secretary that is advertising for a secretary.

We have all heard about stories of politicians looking to empire build courtesy of the taxpayers’ pocket, but this really takes the cake.

No wonder Auckland Council now has more bureaucrats on living off ratepayers than all of the councils it replaced combined.

So what will this new position entail?

“Your day will involve providing administrative support as and where required, this includes anything from managing correspondence, records management to diary management. This role is vital to ensuring that items are actioned, recorded and accurate.”

If that’s the role of the secretary’s secretary, what’s left for the secretary to do?

At a time when the Council needs to find savings of $860 per ratepayer, empire building in Council offices should not be tolerated.

With nearly 6,000 bureaucrats on the pay-roll, 811 of which are earning over $100,000 a year, Len Brown and his CEO ought to be out trimming the fat rather than increasing the burden on ratepayers even further. 

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Would performance pay justify paying MPs more?

Stephen Franks blogs:

Incentive pay for MPs

The moot for the New Zealand Initiative's youth debate semi-final this year in Wellington is a good one -

"Should New Zealand tie MPs' and Ministers' salaries to a multiple of the average national income?"

When the Remuneration Authority was asking MPs about reform of the system 10 years ago, I urged that:

a) Parties be given a material amount they could distribute among their members according to their pre-Parliament incomes, to do three things:

  • reduce the income cut involved in going to Parliament for people for whom there is much more to lose, and
  • reduce the overpayment of the kind or people who would never be thought useful enough outside Parliament to get anywhere near their Parliamentary income, so they don't cling quite so desperately to their places; and
  • have the supplement reduce each year after entry to Parliament, to encourage turnover of people who have not progressed.

I also suggested a trailing commission, to induce longer term thinking among MPs. Exec incentive schemes that fail to add a trailing element or to defer vesting encourage manipulation of reporting and incentivise short term results. In politics that there is already more than enough incentive for false reporting and short-temism, in the 3 year electoral cycle.

Accordingly MPs should have a material part of their remuneration deferred each year. If the MP demands immediate payment is should be substantially discounted. The deferred amount (say half) might be paid out say five years later, multiplied by 2 times or 5 times the GDP or average income growth in the five years. If it shifted MPs horizons, it would be money incredibly well spent even if they tripled or quadrupled their incomes.

For an even longer perspective, simply make the deferral period longer.

From the taxpayers' perspective, paying MPs a little more, if it resulted in better performance is a no brainer. How would you structure it though? Drop us a line, or comment on our Facebook page.

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John Bishop on consultation irony

On Monday a fellow Taxpayers' Union board member and I spent a fascinating morning with a group of academics, middle level public servants and representatives of NGOs responding to a request for our views about 'open government'. Sounded interesting; well yes, but it turned out to be a quick fire consultation about how the government could fulfil its requirement to report progress of open government to some international body and agreement it signed up to.

The report is due by the end of July and along with some discussions on Loomio this meeting seemed to be about the sum total of consultation on the matter.  This is deeply ironic given that some of the values of open government are that consultation should be timely, appropriate and that there is enough time taken for interested parties to discuss and debate their positions and learn about the positions of others. The session was very top down. The first question as whether a bunch of documents, variously called Better Public Services, ICT Strategy and Action Plan and the National Integrity System, were an appropriate starting point. They probably were, given that there was really no other obvious starting point.

But the real agenda quickly became apparent when those attending said plainly and simply that making data available wasn’t actually the most important part of open government. Nor was enabling citizens to transact with government agencies (renewing their car registration, applying for a passport, and the like) really anything about more democracy – welcome though such initiatives were.

Officials looked a bit disconcerted and chagrined.  This wasn’t going according to plan. Their primary interest was finding something meaningful to report and preferably with enough of patina of consultation to enable them to say that this was a consensus view from societal groups and not simply the view of officials. The participants, mainly Wellington based policy wonks and advisors, well understood the game and worked to fulfil their needs.

However the discussion was constructive and useful. There was clear consensus about

·       Reviewing the Official Information Act to reduce delays and obstruction

·       Publishing Best Practice guideline on public consultation

·       Defining and codifying “accountability” and responsibility” in the public sector, consistent with the ability of officials to give quality advice

·       Giving the responsibility for open government to a single agency.

For what it’s worth the Taxpayers' Union view of accountability (or responsibility) revolves around being able to find out who made which decision, when and why, seeking to achieve which specified objectives, based on what evidence and costs, knowing that the evidence and costs were themselves robust, and when the programme or activity has been implemented being able to find what results were achieved, and where these results were short or astray from the original objectives what will be done about it, by whom and when.

We believe that it is far too difficult to find out how well (or badly) taxpayers money was spend by government, and that goals such as transparency and accountability needed to be strengthened by coherent actions which match results against objectives and count achievements against costs.

Bureaucratic speak

Finally a couple of examples of bureaucratic jargon to round out the day: My two favourites were:

“We need to systematise our learnings here and develop some protocols around them.” And this little gem of positive sounding word smithing; “develop” became “develop a strategy to strengthen”. Of such debates is a day of discussion in Wellington composed.

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Update on the AAE - DoC requests that logo be removed

Further to our questions about whether or not DoC is a supporter of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (the scientific expedition that got stuck in the ice recently), yesterday we received another letter from DoC confirming that DoC has not supported the AAE. It states that DoC has now asked the AAE for its logo to be removed from the expedition's website.

To recap, after asking how much taxpayer money had been committed to the failed expedition, we discovered that the AEE was falsely claiming DoC as a 'supporter'. See my earlier posts here and here.

We look forward to receiving responses from the other New Zealand 'supporters', Landcare Research and the University of Waikato.

Click "continue reading" for the correspondence.

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Oops - looks like DoC isn't the only 'supporter' of the AAE caught unaware

Further to my discovery and blog post earlier today that DoC is in fact not supporting the Australian Antarctic Expedition ("AAE") - despite being listed as such on the AAE website, the Australian blog "Watts Up With That" reports that the Australasian Antarctic Devision (i.e. a division of the Australian Department of the Environment) has also been caught on the hop as an unknown 'supporter' of the AAE trip to the ice.  The Ministry has made an effort to disassociate itself on Australian radio ABC.

Australian Antarctic Division head Tony Fleming says they’ll make efforts to recover the cost of #spiritofmawson rescue

From radio 666 ABC in Canberra, Australia, full audio follows.

Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division tells Louise Maher the AAD wasn’t linked to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition despite an implication by the expedition head that he had an “official stamp of approval”.

The expedition was brought to a halt when its ship became trapped in ice, stranding the 52 tourists and scientists on board.

A Chinese ice-breaker which went to its rescue of the Russian ship also became stuck in the ice. The ship’s passengers were airlifted to an Australian ice breaker Aurora Australis – which is due to reach Hobart in about a fortnight.

Tony Fleming says the AAD will make efforts to recover the cost of the rescue which set back their own missions.

Listen to the audio:

 

Also, since this morning's post one of our volunteers has  pointed out the following on the AAE website:

That would appear inconsistent with what DoC told us yesterday, i.e. that no support was being provided.

Click "continue reading" for more info.

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MP employment spats costing taxpayers

This morning the New Zealand Herald covered figures released by the Taxpayers' Union show that MPs are chewing through more than $65,000 per month on payouts to avoid messy employment grievances.

Parliamentary Service spent nearly $400,000 on payouts for former staff in the second half of last year, a period in which the agency was mired in controversy.

Figures released by the Speaker showed that since June, 20 former employees had received a severance payment. On average, former staff received nearly $20,000 each.

Parliamentary Service employed around 650 people including assistants and advisers for MPs in Wellington and regional offices, and also staff within the parliamentary precinct such as security guards.

Eleven of the people who received severance packages had worked for MPs.

Parliamentary Service group manager shared services Anne Smith said the number and amount of payments was higher than usual because the agency was being restructured and because of a high turnover of MPs in the second half of the year.

She said the costs would be offset by the improvements made in the restructuring.

Labour Party MP Grant Robertson said that the payments reflected a turbulent period for the agency.

"It would be fair to say that morale has been pretty low in the Parliamentary Service and obviously from the point of view of MPs we don't want to see that carry on."

General manager Geoff Thorn resigned in August after it was revealed that Parliamentary Service had passed on emails between Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance and United Future leader Peter Dunne to an inquiry investigating the leak of a sensitive report.

Taxpayers' Union spokesman Jordan Williams criticised the costly use of public money to pay out former staff. He claimed that Parliamentary Service was "buying the silence" of workers who had been sacked on the spot by MPs.

A clause in parliamentary staff contracts allowed instant dismissal of staff in cases of "irreconcilable differences".

Mr Williams said he knew of two dismissals in which a minor party leader refused to hear their employee's response to allegations made by other colleagues.

Parliamentary Service would not confirm how many of the payments related to the irreconcilable differences clause, but said the agency followed strict processes in dealing with employment disputes.

The payments usually covered three months' wages and any outstanding leave or other entitlements.

The figures released did not include ministerial staff.

Severance payments

MP support staff: Eleven payments totalling $122,935.
Other staff: Nine payments totalling $273,006.

The two instant dismissals referred to in the Herald story, were due to a minor party leader being unwilling to hear his employee’s response to a minor allegation made by a colleague. The former employees were offered confidential payouts from Parliamentary Service well above what the individuals were advised they would likely be awarded in court. 

While every other New Zealander must follow the letter of employment law, information released to the Taxpayers' Union suggests that MPs are often ignoring it and having taxpayers fund the resulting payouts. It appears that parliamentary officials offer generous settlements to avoid cases going to the Employment Relations Authority. We think that protecting MPs with such a practise affords them a privilege that only invites further abuse. 

To date Ministerial Services has refused to provide the equivalent information for ministerial staff. The Taxpayers' Union currently has a complaint regarding that decision before the Ombudsman.

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Mayor Brown must pay the money back

As widely covered by media over the weekend, the EY report into suspected misuse of Auckland Council resources by Len Brown is deeply concerning. In addition to the undeclared freebies (including undeclared gifts from Skycity - at the same time as publicly championing the convention centre deal) the report fails to deal with the concerns raised by the Taxpayers' Union in relation to the Mayor's trip to China in January 2013. We still don't know for example:

  1. What was Mayor Brown's spending on the trip?
  2. Why was the trip not announced in the same way as other official trips by Mr Brown?
  3. Why did officials mislead us about the existence of the trip?
  4. Why were officials instructed to refer all enquires about the trip to Mr Brown's Chief of Staff?
  5. Were officials instructed not to disclose the existence of the trip?
  6. What was/is the Council or Mayor trying to hide?

Apology hollow without offer to refund Auckland ratepayers

Today we called on Mr Brown to pay back the money for both his personal expenses and undeclared gift listed in the EY report.  Without the offer to pay the money back, we think the apology made by Mr Brown today to ratepayers is meaningless.

Click continue reading for our media release.

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