What we did not agree to at 2020

As Joshua Gans notes, the final report of the 2020 Summit is out.

The authors of the productivity stream report certainly have an interesting definition of the word ‘agree’, as in ‘the stream agreed to the following’. What this means is that the ideas that follow were not, in the limited time available, subject to sufficiently vigorous dissent to knock them out of consideration. But given those time constraints, most people were more concerned with getting their own pet ideas in than keeping other people’s pet ideas out.

Given the lack of a proper decision making procedure, the productivity stream as a whole agreed to none of the ideas presented.

There are many bad ideas in this document, but two in particular amused me:

* [ensure] that policies and programs are informed by evidence and rigorous evaluation

This from a group that rarely gave policy suggestions more than a few minutes of explanation or discussion.

* develop measures to improve work-life balance

From a group sacrificing its weekend, led by a man who shows less regard for work-life balance than just about any other major employer.

32 Responses to “What we did not agree to at 2020

  • 1
    Tom N.
    June 2nd, 2008 18:46

    Let’s face it, the whole exercise was a collosal waste of time. It involved gathering a group of enthusiastic amateurs – amateur that is at the practice of policy analysis – together in a room with a brief to put forward the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything … in two days! There is no shortage of “bright ideas” doing the rounds in Australia; “sensible” ideas, or ideas that can be implemented, is another matter.

    The Government already has a number of bodies and processes established specifically to formulate sensible, implementable policies, staffed by professional policy advisers. I doubt that there was an even-half sensible idea, let along a fully sensible one, discussed at the 2020 summit that had not already been thought of and properly analysed by such people.

    I do not know whether 20/20 was good politics or not, but it was appalling policy development – if that is what it was intended to be.

  • 2
    Rafe
    June 3rd, 2008 10:17

    Yes it is impossible to take the content or the output seriously, except to wonder what is going to happen next when an administration is prepared to put on that kind of circus. Of course it all fits the pattern of counter-productive and divisive gestures that started with Sorry and Kyoto. So much for cleveness in the age of spin.

  • 3
    conrad
    June 3rd, 2008 12:13

    “led by a man who shows less regard for work-life balance than just about any other major employer”

    People keep on complaining about this, but it simply isn’t true. There are many companies out there willing to work their employees extremely hard. Ask any new IT or accounting (etc.) graduate, for example.

    I’d also like to see a survey on which government departments people are really so overworked — my observation (not that I have a big N) is that there is huge variability, and that whilst some are efficient and generally have hard working employees, some are certainly not. Another point seemingly lost is that whilst some of the measures are win-win, if all the hard workers out there decide to take a better “work-life” balance, the consequences would be a disaster in terms of lost workplace productivity, lost essential services etc. (who would ever work night shifts, for example?).

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    June 3rd, 2008 13:02

    Conrad – It would be interesting to see what hours on average senior public servants are working. It would not be as high as investment banking and other fields notorious for long hours. But people sign up to those jobs knowing what they are getting into and getting big salaries and bonuses in return. Public servants did not sign up to answer dawn and midnight calls driven by an obsessive in the Lodge.

  • 5
    Christian
    June 3rd, 2008 13:48

    I would be curious as to exactly how many public servants are actually working these long hours – If it’s the senior public servants, well that can be expected especially given the professionalisation of the public service that has taken place over recent decades. So far we have only heard anecdotal evidence from a few people on talk back radio, “sources around Canberra”, and Kevin Rudd himself saying he is working the public service hard (but that’s to be expected, he’s not going to say he’s not giving them much to do).

    As for “counter-productive and divisive gestures that started with Sorry and Kyoto” – I get so amused by some of these blanket conservative statements (admittedly just like I get amused by some blanket statements made by people on the other side of the political spectrum). Maybe 2020 was more about gesture and symbolism, but it was hardly “divisive” and neither were the apology to the Stolen Generation or ratifying the Kyoto protocol (rather they were unifying, in my view). I think it’s just a bit of “spin” and rhetoric on the part of Rafe himself.

  • 6
    conrad
    June 3rd, 2008 13:59

    “Public servants did not sign up to answer dawn and midnight calls driven by an obsessive in the Lodge.”

    Top senior public servants get paid reasonably — and at the top level, you are obviously signing up for whatever the government wants to give you, which I assume is one of the reasons why all the jobs for the top positions (even the mid level ones in fact) state that you don’t get the benefits of overtime, might have to work weird hours etc. Even the first level executive positions (with pay of around 70K) have this.

    Apart from that, there are heaps of jobs where people are working large and often weird hours that do not get huge salaries (Australians in professional positions work some of the longest hours in the world on average), so pointing to jobs like banking and so on is not exactly an argument against long hours in jobs without such salaries. Feel free to look at all the HODs where you work if you want to see whether this happens to be true or not, or if you want someone on low pay who works long hours think of who cleans your office at 5am in the morning.

    Given this, I have an alternative view, which we obviously don’t have the answer to yet, but if the excessive workload is really a big deal, then it should show up in high workplace turnover, and more importantly, the inability to recruit decent staff. If this happens, the comment about over work is correct. If it isn’t the case, then its a productivity gain that Rudd has got out of some of his staff that should be commended.

  • 7
    Tom N.
    June 3rd, 2008 15:14

    FLOGGING A BROWN AND BEIGE CARDIGAN-WEARING PUBLIC SERVANT

    If it isn’t the case, then its a productivity gain that Rudd has got out of some of his staff that should be commended.

    Working longer hours isn’t a productivity gain, Conrad; its a gain in production (assuming that the longer hours don’t result in negative marginal output). Productivity is defined as outputs to inputs; more inputs does not mean more productivity.

    I’m not sure that I quite qualify as a ‘senior public servant’, but I have just worked two weeks in which I exceeded 120 hours on average per week (including no less than 64 hours in the last three days), largely to meet a very tight deadline imposed emanating from the Government. My production was high, but my productivity was, by the end, waning.

    Moreover, notwithstanding the high psychic income I get from doing the work I do, this was not the expectation I had when I signed up for the job – nor is it in the conditions of my employ. Were they to want me to work this hard for ever, I may as well go and sell my soul, and my social life, and double my money in the private sector.

  • 8
    conrad
    June 3rd, 2008 15:48

    Tom: I agree with your productivity definition Tom, but I hope the point is clear.

    As for your anecdote — I have known many people that have this type of situation in private companies (mainly IT people — I don’t have data on this — but companies like Anderson Consulting [now Accenture] were notorious for doing this with new graduates in the days of high unemployment and may still be so). I also know certain obsessed people in Academia that work these hours all the time (a great proportion of non-obsessed academics also get extremely poor hours near the end of semester and are just expected to put up with it). That’s why I don’t think it should be seen as special (nor unexpected) if high end people (whom I’ll just define as Executive level 1 in the public service) have to do it occasionally too. Hopefully by the time you get to those levels, you actually enjoy what you are doing (and that should be especially true for the policy people) and hence some extra hours now and then shouldn’t be seen as a fuss. Of course, many people are not going to want to do them — but thats true of many workplaces.

  • 9
    derrida derider
    June 3rd, 2008 16:28

    “.. if the excessive workload is really a big deal, then it should show up in high workplace turnover …”

    Rudd has had six diary secretaries in six months. Faces in the rest of his office are changing at a bewildering pace – that’s not an efficient way to run things.

    Look, people can and do put intense effort in short (say two or three week) bursts, because, as you say, they enjoy the work because they believe in it. But when those hours are expected week after week, month after month, that belief fades …

  • 10
    Sinclair Davidson
    June 3rd, 2008 16:37

    DD, Rudd had a plausible answer in QT yesterday when asked about this. He got temporary staff – is that not the case?

  • 11
    Andrew Leigh
    June 3rd, 2008 16:56

    TomN, you’ve had an average of 2.6 hours’ sleep over the last three nights, and now you’re debating the definition of productivity? Aren’t you meant to be hallucinating at this point?

  • 12
    Sinclair Davidson
    June 3rd, 2008 18:34

    We live in an economy, not a public service.

  • 13
    Rajat Sood
    June 3rd, 2008 19:22

    Isn’t the point about work-life balance that people shouldn’t work too much in absolute terms, not necessarily that they shouldn’t work more than people in other professions? So regardless of whether investment bankers or IT people or whoever work longer hours than public servants, the reported observation is that Rudd’s staff/department are still working very hard and possibly harder than what is consistent with most pundits’ idea of work-life balance.

  • 14
    Tom N.
    June 4th, 2008 08:42

    Andrew – I certainly thought I must have been hallucinating when I read Conrad’s reply in which he said that people in the private sector – and the odd academic – work those hours all the time!

    Personally, I don’t mind much if losers in the private sector want to spend every waking (and most normal sleeping) hour of their life in the office – freedom of choice (though one wonders whether cognitive limitations are also at play in such decisions). But if it is the case that Rudd is requiring his top public servants to consistently work ridiculous hours, he has effectively cut their hourly rate – and is forcing them into something they did not sign up for. I also worry about the quality of advice coming from people asleep on their feet.

  • 15
    Rafe Champion
    June 4th, 2008 22:18

    The final report is dated 31 May, I don’t recall any fanfare about this event, I wonder if they are afraid that people might read it?

  • 16
    simon smith
    June 5th, 2008 05:32

    well, we did warn you. Seriously, what did you expect from a managerialist government coralling 1000 people together for 12 hours of sessions? Even if twere done in good faith, how could the process be productive and participant-steered at the same time?
    And twere not done in good faith.

    Shoulda taken the high road, emphasised the importance of intellectual independence and free institutions, stayed away. In consenting to be a part of it you revealed character defects which do not serve you well as a public intellectual – an overwheening desire to be where the action is, less concern about what the trade-off was.

    Ah well…at least Rudd thinks it was a farce too, and has buried it.

  • 17
    conrad
    June 5th, 2008 07:46

    “losers in the private sector”

    I don’t think bad-mouthing people in the private sector is helpful. Think about it next time you want a doctor.

    “and is forcing them into something they did not sign up for”

    I disagree with that. There’s no-where in government contracts that limits the hours worked by employees of high level staff (in fact its the opposite). In addition, given that top level employees cost a lot to have, I think people should be trying to maximize the amount they get out of them — what normal business wouldn’t? or is the public service exempted from this? If the second of those is true, it seems like a good argument to minimize its size as much as possible. Obviously I’m distinguishing between getting the most from employees and poor management here — getting the most from employees doesn’t mean giving them such poor conditions you lose them, which is expensive for both the employee and the employer.

  • 18
    Rafe Champion
    June 5th, 2008 08:14

    Productivity is a matter of output, not just inputs of time and other resources: what are Rudd’s helpers and advisors producing that someone would want to pay for?

  • 19
    Tom N.
    June 5th, 2008 14:19

    Conrad – I wasn’t bad mouthing people in the private sector generally; just those who (according to you) work such stupidly long hours every week. Sorry mate, but in general such people – if they actually exist – really are losers.

  • 20
    conrad
    June 5th, 2008 15:39

    “Sorry mate, but in general such people – if they actually exist – really are losers.”

    Tom, I think your attitude is symptomatic of the lazy sense of entitlement attitude (and evidentally sense of moral superiority attitude — thou shalt not work hard) that seems to be quite pervasive in Australia these days. Perhaps you need to have a look at all the people that have who built successful businesses (and so on). I’m sure most had times when they had to work stupidly hard (ask Bill Gates). I’m glad and thankful to them for providing well paid employment to millions of people (and making their countries rich) in a way that their governments don’t. In addition, perhaps you just have a bunch of lazy friends and colleagues, but the people I’ve worked with that do stupid hours like that have also been far from losers — quite the opposite in fact.

  • 21
    Spiros
    June 5th, 2008 18:04

    Tom, if you are so busy, how come you’ve got time to post comments on this blog?

  • 22
    Tom N.
    June 6th, 2008 00:00

    LIVING TO WORK vs WORKING TO LIVE

    I don’t think we’re really going to get much further with this, Conrad, but as a public service let me at least unpack some of the subconscious value judgments and misconceptions that appear to underpin your position.

    In particular, you ask me to “look at successfull businesses”. Well, I guess it depends on one’s measure of success. From your posts, yours seems to primarily be making lots of money, but as an economist I am much more interested in human wellbeing than income. So if some businessman makes several million quid by working 100 hours a week all his life, while that would presumably qualify as a “success” in your book, he’d still rate as a loser in mine.

    Your other criteria for business success seems to be using lots of resources … errr … sorry … employing lots of people. But frankly, there’s a market to sort out employment levels – we don’t need workaholic meglamaniacs to create jobs. If such individuals shut up shop, or if they were never to bother in the first place, there’ll always be an otherwise marginal businessperson ready to take their place. So while you might feel like eulogising these 24/7 capitalists as ‘benevolent providers of gainful employ’, I’m just going to keep calling them what in most cases they are: losers.

    Finally, Conrad, you chide me for my “lazy sense of entitlement” and attribute to me the attitude that “thou shalt not work hard”. For the record, I often work quite hard and I recognise that the bread on my table does not fall from the sky. But as well as doing the hard work that it is necessary for me to do, I also ensure that I make time for the many other valuable things in my life … unlike, one suspects, the workaholic losers that you seem to think we should all aspire to emulate.

  • 23
    conrad
    June 6th, 2008 06:56

    Tom, there are two types of people that work large hours:
    1) Those that have to.
    2) Those that want to.

    Being lucky enough to have finished university at a time of high unemployment, a fair few of the people I knew fell into category (1). They’re all now experienced professionals that earn lots of money without having to do ridiculous hours. Were they losers for being caught in category (1) for some years of their lives? . In addition, given that you yourself may start falling into category (1) a lot more, you may well be calling yourself a loser.

    In terms of category (2), we’re not just talking about people that make lots of money — how about Fred Hollows as an example. Was he a loser for working very hard to fix poor people’s eyesight? I’ll assume the answer is no. I think you are confounding your situation (presumably a dull public service job in Canberra where you write reports that never get used or anyone cares about — a very common thing in the public service I believe from the people I know who have worked in it), with people that are not in this situation and actually enjoy what they do. If the latter of these is obsessed with what they do, because they enjoy it, then good for them — why put them down?

  • 24
    conrad
    June 6th, 2008 06:58

    Another good example here is Crick and Watson — I believe they worked very hard to discover DNA. Were they losers for it doing it?

  • 25
    Tom N.
    June 6th, 2008 18:42

    CONRAD’s first Q: “Were they losers for being caught in category (1) for some years of their lives?” A: Yes: that’s obvious from your ealier description.
    CONRAD’s 2nd point: “given that you yourself may start falling into category (1) a lot more, you may well be calling yourself a loser.” RESPONSE: Well, if it actually happenned, then yes. But so what – how does that alter the argument that most people in such circumstances are losers? The answer is that it doesn’t.
    CONRAD’s third point: “I think you are confounding your situation (presumably a dull public service job in Canberra … ), with people that are not in this situation and actually enjoy what they do.” RESPONSE: Can’t speak for the other cardigan-clad paper shufflers, but I really love my job, so your presumption is incorrect.
    CONRAD’s 4th point: “If the latter of these is obsessed with what they do, because they enjoy it, then good for them — why put them down?” RESPONSE: For the same reason I feel sad for people who are addicted to pokies, porn and the like. You seem to presume that revealed preference is necessarily related to enjoyment, but psychologists have identified various reasons why there can be a disconnect between these things – having an “obsession” with something, as you decribed it, can be a key telltale in this regard.
    * * *
    Regarding the rest, please point out where I said that everyone who works ridiculously long hours is a loser and I will respond. In the meantime, finding the odd example of someone who works ridiculous hours who may not be does not alter the general point.

  • 26
    conrad
    June 6th, 2008 19:41

    “addicted to pokies, porn and the like”

    I’m not sure that making an analogy between working hard to get somewhere in life and pokies and porn is an especially good one. Would they not be losers if they didn’t do that and now worked at McDonalds?

    “finding the odd example of someone who works ridiculous hours who may not be does not alter the general point.”

    Its not an odd example at all. I think you’ll the majority of people that work long hours are happy to do so. I think Andrew had a post on this some time ago, at least for people that worked 50 hours plus:

    http://andrewnorton.info/2007/06/why-are-people-satisfied-with-their-work-life-balance/

    and I seem to remember there is another set of data around which looks at people in the higher brackets.

    So what you are really saying is that most people that work long hours (who generally don’t mind) are losers for doing so (even though they don’t mind), which seems pretty judgmental to me. Perhaps we need legislation like France against it.

  • 27
    conrad
    June 6th, 2008 19:53

    If you want another example of just how common long hours are that isn’t just from survey data, then think of all those non-English speaking migrants Australia has that run small businesses (resteraunts, milkbars etc.). Heaps of these guys work all day every data with very few holidays, since its evidentally better than being unemployed. Are they all losers too?

  • 28
    Tom N.
    June 6th, 2008 23:15

    In post 7 Conrad, I mentioned that I have averaged 120 hours per week recently. In post 8 you responded that you knew of plenty of people in the private sector, and the odd academic, who work these hours all the time. That was where our debate kicked off. The minimum number of hours I have mentioned in the context of labelling workaholics as losers was in post 22, where I said: “So if some businessman makes several million quid by working 100 hours a week all his life, while that would presumably qualify as a “success” in your book, he’d still rate as a loser in mine.”

    Now (post 26) you’re trying to slide this debate from “ridiculous” hours to “long hours”, and talking about a point Andrew made a while ago ‘s “at least for people that worked 50 hours plus”. You also repeat points without addressing counter-arguments already made to them. Frankly, arguing with you is like herding cats, which is why I’m not going to bother doing so further.

  • 29
    conrad
    June 7th, 2008 07:32

    Maybe you arn’t good doing maths, but here’s a typical life of many small business owners:

    Day-to-day grind: 10-12 hours (6-7 days per week).
    Government forms: 1.5 hours).

    Bad week (most of December) = 13.5 hours per day * 7 = 94.5 hours.

    In addition, if you think about the HILDA data (which I just pointed to because it was conventient), then it must be the case that if the overall satisfaction is normal, then most of the distribution must be normal, otherwise those working 50-60 hours per week must be vastly happier than those working less than 50 to compesnate those getting into the silly realms. (in addition, if average 60 hours per week, its more than likely you will have silly weeks now and then).

    Speaking of herding cats, people who are losers for working hard, and yet more insults, try learning some mathematics, at least addition.

  • 30
    Rajat Sood
    June 7th, 2008 11:12

    I think I speak for many other readers of this blog when I ask if you two could please grow up and end your pointless bickering.

  • 31
    Tom N.
    June 7th, 2008 22:36

    Thanks for the gratuitous advice, Rajat, but I can decide for myself when I will exit debates. Indeed, if you’d read my last post before commenting, you would have realised that in the case of my debate with Conrad I already have.

    PS: Others may or may not hold the same opinion, but you can only speak for yourself. So, if its your view that such-and-such a debate has gone on for too long, feel free to say so. But please don’t use underhand attempts to bolster the moral force of your position.

  • 32
    Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily
    July 22nd, 2008 07:27

    [...] conference is the get together that just keeps giving. Andrew Norton finds so much that amuses. In particular the bit about work/life balance which – in light of Rudd’s fightin’ [...]