Henry's own goal gives talk shop an extra kick

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

'As the Chief Executive said in his policy address we should: 'Identify what our people need, so as to provide them with more efficient and convenient services ...' We all know that this is easier said than done. He only has to say it, we have to do it. The challenge facing us is really quite daunting.'

Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen,

March 27

He wasn't daunted, however. Our Henry may be a latecomer to the civil service but he knows how the service rises to a challenge like this. It organises a talk shop with professional talkers from around the world to talk all the right talk.

Hence the Public Sector Reform Conference 2008 with an invitation list of more than 1,000 senior civil servants and invited guests and Henry himself to deliver the opening address.

He was followed on the programme list by ... well ... yes ... hmmm ... have you ever heard of someone called Wolfgang Grulke of Future World International?


Neither have I, nor of the next listed speaker, Dr Greg Parston of the Accenture Institute for Public Service Value. Both of these fellows had weighty thoughts about the future, however. Apparently, things that you do today can have an effect on things that happen tomorrow. Really, it's true.

But Henry didn't need professional talkers who give good voice to present the audience with a worthwhile show. He himself took barely a minute to bestow a spectacular own goal on the gathering.

The big line that Henry was to deliver, you see, was that in the third of three public opinion surveys held over the past year, the public rated the overall customer service of the civil service at 6.8 out of 10 compared to the private sector at 6.7.

We shall ignore for the moment that it took the bureaucrats three tries to get this score and Henry didn't tell us what the first two surveys showed.

We shall not say that a margin of 0.1 out of 10 isn't very much and, if civil servants think it is, then perhaps their average margin of pay and perks over the private sector should also be only 0.1 rather than the 229 per cent revealed by the only independent survey ever conducted on the matter.

Are you up for it, fellas?

We shall forbear to point out that a conference on public sector reform is not hugely encouraged to come up with reforms when its chief host launches the proceedings by saying in effect that the public sector is just fine the way it is.

You won't see it said here that this is, in fact, a superb way of telling any attendees with bright ideas to keep their mouths shut.

We shall disregard all of these things because Henry decided to be clever before divulging the news.

Apparently the venue for the talk shop was equipped with an audience voting system, buttons you can push right by your seat, and Henry came up with the brilliant idea of putting the survey question directly to his listeners.

Pick up your handsets, he said, and press a number between one and 10 for how you rate the service level of government. Now do the same thing for the private sector.

And the scores he got back were 7.6 for the private sector and 7.2 for the government, this from an audience composed predominantly of civil servants. They rated themselves below their private sector counterparts - hee-hee-hee-hoo-haw!

'This is an interesting result,' said Henry after a bit of blathering and then obviously remembered the rulebook on what to do when you stick your foot in it.

Soldier on, says the book, and he did, reverting to lengthy praise of the now discredited survey that gave civil servants the higher score.

I doubt that he even had had to tell the shills not to allow any mention of the embarrassment in the official statements. They didn't, in any event.

The press release on his speech was headed 'Civil Service surpasses private sector in customer service'.

You understand the guiding principle, I'm sure - The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ... or at least a reasonable facsimile.

It certainly puts Henry's concluding remarks at this talk shop into perspective - 'If you have good ideas, bring them forward, break the mould. And remember that it takes courage to change. Only chickens shy away from it.'

They did bring them forward, Sir, broke the mould and took the courage, as you put it. But what was it again that you did in response? Did I hear a 'squawk' there?

Let's not be too hard on Henry, however. At least he got the general idea right. You score goals by kicking the ball between the posts. Next time, perhaps, someone will get around to telling him how you have to be at the right goalposts and pointed in the right direction when you do it.