Thursday, February 14, 2013

Riding with square wheels: governing in PNG

Sir Paul Hasluck, the Australian Minister for Territories from 1951 to 1963, once described PNG as ‘a task for Sisyphus’.

No matter how much he pushed the boulder to the top of the hill, Hasluck lamented, it could never quite stay at the top. ‘I think I did just as well as Sisyphus did’, he wrote in A Time for Building, ‘and certainly got just as tired’.

It is difficult to know what Hasluck would think of governing PNG in 2013, but he might observe that the hill had gotten steeper and the boulder much heavier. There are many reasons given for PNG’s poor governance performance, ranging from poor leadership to lax party discipline, fragmented cultures, a hasty colonial retreat, and a Westminster system that is seen as a poor fit with the underlying society.

Recent expectations of PNG’s government, however, give some focus to the country’s list of governance problems and the challenges faced by its current political leaders. For example, at a recent Lowy Institute New Voices conference in Port Moresby, PNG’s next generation of young professionals from across a range of sectors made clear their requests for better political leadership to stimulate greater financial inclusiveness, investment in the agricultural sector, public–private partnerships and opportunities for high school graduates. While these requests are not new, high economic growth over the past decade and the subsequent growth in government revenues have created more acute expectations of government performance.

The new O’Neill government does not lack rhetoric in its promises to meet such expectations. At every opportunity, the government is promoting greater state activity, whether it be Treasurer Don Polye’s posturing for a consistent state share in resource extraction endeavours, the branding of 2013 as a ‘year of implementation and consolidation’ by Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion, or Prime Minister O’Neill’s commitment to subsidised education.

These initiatives, however, depend entirely upon a state apparatus that has traditionally struggled to deliver outcomes. Some service delivery failures range from the heartbreaking to the bizarre. In 2010, a PNG newspaper carried the story of a provincial governor — the most senior political figure in the province — having to cut down overgrown ‘banana trees, sugar cane and pawpaws’ outside his office by himself because the provincial administration had not responded to his numerous directives. If such a simple task cannot be completed, how can complex education, health or infrastructure programs hope to be successfully rolled out?

While this episode may not represent service delivery in all parts of the country, the leakage and waste of public expenditure makes service delivery interminably slow. A 2004 World Bank study into education expenditure in PNG, for example, showed that subsidy leakage, defined as the difference between national budget disbursements and actual reported receipts at schools, ranged ‘between 16 and 29 per cent’. In the same year, it was found that the bottom third of schools received no grants or subsidies at all. Poor service delivery invades all arenas of government. As put by Mekere Morauta, a former prime minister who was recently appointed chairman of Ok Tedi Mining, ‘People are tired. People have lost faith. People are sick of secret deals. People are craving for services’.

How then can PNG deliver services more effectively? While this is a difficult question, quality human capital operating within an effective bureaucracy is a decent place to start. Even in fully transparent and well-advanced democracies running an effective public service is difficult. The Australian public service, for example, constitutes thousands of well-trained civil servants coordinating across multiple political offices, departments, jurisdictions and sectors to ensure that diverse government commitments — from defence procurement to public housing — meet broad citizen demands and expectations. The point is that a decent public service is a complex organisation that takes considerable time and effort to develop.

And while improving bureaucratic services is a long-term objective for PNG, attracting greater human capital into its public sector could be achieved through a dual-citizenship arrangement to allow thousands of young mixed-race Papua New Guinean professionals in Australia and other places to return to PNG and inject their skills into the public sector — a practice currently not encouraged.

It should also be noted that service delivery is not impossible in PNG. Between national elections, which take place every five years, ‘delivering the goods’ is an important priority as alliance and patronage networks are serviced by politicians seeking greater support. While these activities are pursued at the expense of the broader public good, they loosely demonstrate that, with enough political will, some obstacles to service delivery can be overcome when required.

PNG’s young professionals have put forward some sensible requests, and it would be encouraging to see ‘bread and butter’ services being delivered to Papua New Guineans: paving smooth roads that everyone can drive on, paying teachers on time, reducing power cuts or placing enough police officers onto the streets are some of the many things that the government can’t seem to do in PNG. Doing them seems simple but, as Hasluck would no doubt observe, it has so far been ‘a task for Sisyphus’.

Sean Jacobs is a former Australian youth volunteer in the Pacific and has worked with all levels of government in PNG.

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