The public sector is a major part of PNG’s economy. It is the single biggest employer in the country, accounting for roughly one quarter of formal employment.
But public service performance in delivering services has been questioned by various leaders, particularly elected leaders at the national and provincial levels over the past ten years.
“This Department is at the heart of the Administration of Papua New Guinea”, said outgoing Public Service Minister Bart Philemon. “I have made a public statement on my concern that after Independence we have gone backwards and that it is a reflection of our capacity to administer. If you look at the indicators, in terms of gross national product and per capita income we are a middle level country. But most of our social indicators, infant mortality, maternal mortality, literacy and so forth are much below those of other countries within the region, in fact they are in line with low income earning countries. To me that’s a reflection of the failure of government machinery to manage the system properly.”
There is a general concern that services are not reaching rural areas. Certain parts of the country lack essential health, education and infrastructure services, or people need to travel long distances to be able to access these services. Yet administration is costing the country 80% of total government expenditure. Coming from the private sector where administration costs would never exceed 30%, Bart Philemon thinks that costs must be reduced, fast. The National Executive Council agrees with him. They have asked for a 7.5% reduction within the year, reducing the salary bill by K45 million. It will mean putting four and a half thousand people out of a job. But it must be done if the country is to free up money for development.
How is it that before Independence the public service was small yet services reached people at the grassroot level? Bart Philemon says that there is no “capacity to manage”. There are no recruitment criteria. There is no available training in Business and Public Administration at a post-graduate level in PNG. He has put a policy document before Government which will build capacity at every level from entry to Department Heads. “We want to appoint people to positions based on their qualifications or merits rather than on political patronage. It is going to be hard selling that idea to the rest of the Ministers who want to appoint their own wantoks”, Philemon admits ruefully. (“Wantok” is pidgin for a friend or relative or someone who speaks the same language – “one talk”.)
The Public Service Management Act provides the legal basis and parameters for personnel management matters. It initiates training programmes at Cadetship and Senior Executive levels and it suggests ways of developing administrative skills. “There is a need for The public sector is a major part of PNG’s economy. It is the single biggest employer in the country, accounting for roughly one quarter of formal employment. public servants to have a sense of purpose, by following a clearly defined career path which creates a professional working atmosphere where personnel are so skilled that they can survive in any working environment be it public or private,” declares a recent discussion paper. “The public service personnel should compete for excellence.” At present there are no performance standards or even agreed mechanisms for measuring performance. It is almost impossible to assess the productivity of the workforce. The proposed training programme will, it is hoped, ensure that all staff are appropriately skilled, motivated and productive.
All public service jobs will be classified along the broad lines of International Labour Organisation classifications, that is: Professional and Executive, Skilled Manpower (including professionals), Semiskilled Workers and Unskilled Workers. Minimum entry qualifications will be set. Sponsorship will be available to assist personnel in attaining qualifications. Bilateral agreements have been established with Australian universities until a graduate business school can be established in PNG.
It remains to be seen whether Public Service will be able to deliver the goods. “It’s not the system, it is the capacity to manage the system that has been at fault” says Bart Philemon. “First we will deal with capacity and then with decentralisation.” Building a skilled bureaucracy responsive to Parliament, accountable to the people, is perceived as the most important task for the future administration of Papua New Guinea.