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By Steve Kelman

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New Zealand civil service: A land without turkey farms

cartoon man and turkey

During my recent trip to New Zealand (I blogged last week about my general impressions of the country), I had a chance to meet with the head of the New Zealand civil service -- which, as in the United Kingdom, is a formal governmentwide position -- together with HR people from some of the New Zealand ministries. It was a wide-ranging conversation, but two snippets of it caught my attention more than anything on our official agenda.

In the course of our discussion, it came out that neither "retired in place" nor "turkey farm" had equivalent terms in the New Zealand public sector. Indeed, there were some chuckles around the room when I explained what each of these phrases meant.

(For non-U.S. readers, and perhaps some Americans unfamiliar with federal jargon, "retired in place" refers to a longtime employee who has psychologically tuned out, and is doing the bare minimum on the job while waiting for retirement. A "turkey farm," meanwhile, is a small office where managers park all the incompetent employees whom they can't get rid of because of civil service protections, creating a separate non-producing unit to prevent the turkeys from interfering with and demoralizing the productive employees.)

When I discussed turkey farms, one of the New Zealand managers declared, "we're too short-handed to be able to afford having something like that."

I'm not sure we are so overstaffed in U.S. agencies that we can afford it either, frankly, but the manager's response does raise an important question: How has New Zealand avoided these problems in their government workforce?

Any answer is speculative, because we only have what social scientists call "an N of one" -- i.e. only one case with which to contrast ourselves, and a wide range of potential explanations. But let me speculate.

One difference between the United States and New Zealand is that New Zealand has for the last 20 years or so had a government HR system that is quite similar to that existing in the private sector. As I understand it, government organizations are given a considerable amount of freedom to craft hiring procedures that they find appropriate to the kinds of people they need to hire, and the rules for dismissing poorly performing employees are similar to those in the private sector. (Though New Zealand's rules still offer greater protections to workers than do those in the U.S. private sector).

A second difference is that government service in New Zealand is still held in relatively high regard, and is competitive in attracting very talented young people. That competitiveness is undoubtedly made easier by New Zealand's lack of a major finance sector, which in the United States distorts the entire labor market with its outsized salaries.

The second problem is hard for us in the United States to do much about, but the first is self-inflicted. I agree with U.S. public employee unions in trying to explain the contributions and raise the status of public employees, but their conservatism in opposing modernization of our civil service system is destructive and, in the long run, self-destructive.

To be sure, these U.S. expressions reflect an aspiration for government performance that hardly even exists in many nations' governments. There are plenty of countries around the world with parasitic government organizations filled with employees who are living high off of bloated salaries and corruption, where everyone behaves at best according to the U.S. concept of retired in place, and every office is a turkey farm. So at least we expect better, recognize that not everybody is like that, and enjoy a culture where these phrases reflect derision. That's a good start. But we can and should do better.

I would be curious to get reactions about "retired in place" and "turkey farms," particularly from non-U.S. readers -- including anyone reading this blog in New Zealand. And U.S. readers' thoughts are of course welcome as well.

PS. I forgot to note in my previous New Zealand blog that Wellington, the capital, is quite neatly divided into a government building district, next to a commercial district, next to an arts and nightlife district. The skyline of the commercial district is dominated by the logos of U.S. firms -- Deloitte, SAS Institute, and IBM -- that sell to the New Zealand government. A sort of Wellington version of the Dulles corridor….

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 18, 2014 at 12:19 PM

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 25, 2014 watchtower San Pedro

You can remove slackers in GS jobs if they do not meet minimum standards; you just need to do the paperwork and follow through. What's sad is no one wants to do the paperwork, counsel employees for not doing their jobs or be the bad guy. The process can be long and sometimes painful, but we owe it to the tax payers to have the best workforce they pay for.

Mon, Feb 24, 2014

If I understand your reference to industry vice government in the US, we sort of had a system like that for the non-bargaining (non-union) GS's in the latter part of 2000. It was called NSPS and was killed by executive order in 2009 because the union and few others declared it was demeaning to have to justify/work for a pay raise.

Thu, Feb 20, 2014 Ohio

Gotta have turkeys to have turkey farms. New Zealanders are far more civilized than Americans. Also, they probably have fewer anarchists inside and outside of government, doing their best to defame and destroy the institution.

Thu, Feb 20, 2014 Andrew Wellington

Hi Steve, Interesting piece. Forgive me if I've oversimplified what I take to be your message, but it seems to me you are equating "modernization of our civil service system" with making it easier to sack, or declare redundant, civil servants. I'm not sure this is a great way to "raise the status of public employees". A new report was published in Wellington today, on 'Rethinking the State Sector Act', and you may even have received an advanced copy while you were here. If not, I'd encourage you - and readers of FCW - to read the contributions from a number of practitioners, academics and former Ministers. It's worth listening to the audio of seminar 5, in particular. You can download the ebook, slides and audio here:

Wed, Feb 19, 2014 Bill Harshaw Reston

In my day, the turkey farm was a unit where the bureaucrats from the "out" party were stashed pending their retirement or their triumphant return to power. That may not reflect the government, since my agency (ASCS) was more political than most. I won't say most of our turkeys had political affiliations, though some did. It's interesting to do a Google alert for "bureaucrat" and "civil servant". In the US bureaucrat is pejorative, in other parts of the English-speaking world it's not, or less so.

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