Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blasphemer in the temple of the State and philosophical musings

Ok, confession.  I am a ........wheeze................public servant.  I suck taxpayers' money and assist politicians.

In a perfect world, I would not be a public servant.  It wrangles with my taxpayer accountability principles, and I find myself ranting on an hourly basis against yet another law passed under urgency, or yet another highly paid project manager sitting on bottomless funding because she intimidated the minister with her large and imposing bone tiki hairclip and she ranted in te reo.  I find myself suppressing dangerous tendancies when ministers haul me into their offices at short notice, and yell and scream at me before realising the useless private secretary summoned the wrong policy manager.  I voice out loud how I would like to sell my share of the America's Cup/RWC/state-owned assets contribution, and what I would do with the money.  And I get murderously angry when useless private secretaries with no experience whatsoever stab me in the back to cover their sycophantic uselessness.  And I can only grit my teeth into a powder because "Yes Minister" is more alive and kicking under National than it ever was.

I consoled myself when I entered the public service with the thought that I could create a more libertarian New Zealand from the inside.  Hah!  Deluded and naive for such a deeply intelligent woman.  Perhaps I was drunk that night. 
In October last year, having only been back in the workforce for 4 months after 2 years as a stay-at-home mum, and hating every second of being a taxpayer-sucking policy analyst, I unexpectedly became the manager of the policy team.  I was slightly apprehensive - management is my area of expertise, not policy, and the combination scared me, as did the speed of the ascension - but I was very excited at the prospect of being a manager.

I have to say, much to my surprise, coordinating the lives of 3 boys at home has actually made me a better leader than I used to be pre-children, in that I am more confident of what I want, I communicate things much more clearly, and I ensure I get people's support, and they get mine, before charging on with something controversial.  Perhaps the life challenge of the past 18 months has contributed to this greater maturity as well.  This all sounds very basic and obvious when I read it, but, in my earlier manager roles, these were the very things that freaked me out.  I used to prefer the "lock-self-in-office-and-all-my-problems-will-resign" style.  No wonder I struggled.  Maturity and motherhood has made an impact on my professional development that I didn't envisage.

And I'm loving it.

One of the first principles I chose to follow when I took on the manager's role was to instigate a more libertarian approach to management, and thereby stealthily encourage libertarian thought in the development of policy and advice to the minister.

I'm fortunate that my staff are all highly intelligent, highly ambitious, and open and honest, and all sit in the preferred area of the political paradigm.  This wasn't always the case - the team I inherited was unmotivated, frustrated, there were divisions in the team, dishonest discussions between the manager and staff, and the quality of advice was poor and taken from the perspective of "government must save people, and government will decide when the people are ready to be saved". 

So, when I came on board, we decided to think less like public servants and more like taxpayers looking for accountability, innovation, and value for money.  We quickly realised we could have some fun with this, and it would actually need less than our budget appropriation.  We now relish identifying pockets of innovation and working with international research institutions, who do all the work and we take the findings; we have developed a bottom up strategic plan rather than a  strategic plan that exists to justify an organisation's existence; the staff create and manage their own objectives, tasks and assignments.  I merely give them the resources and mentoring to make it happen. And we involve the private sector, NGOs and academia in an effort to take services out of government, make it consumer-demand driven or it doesn't exist, and force people to take ownership for their own lives.

This extends to the performance appraisal process, which, within the confines of departmental and public sector rules, we practice what we preach.  It is  honest, open, and focused on personal ownership, rather than relying on the traditional concept of a "manager" to get things done, and everyone is a part of their colleague's appraisal, or performance improvement process.  And, just to gloat, there has been an astounding improvement in the quality of work and the attitude of the team.

For some context, when I started, one individual was a struggling devoted unionist.  I decided the only way I could manage this situation was to be true to myself, rather than pandering to membership choices to force me to hold on to a poor performer.  If the union wanted to "discuss" something with me, bring it on.  Now, through this libertarian approach to management and policy development, this individual is thriving.  And they have finally understood the pride that comes with a personal turnaround because they realised that if they didn't take responsibility for their own career, they would ship themselves out.  Their performance was a nuisance to me, but was not my problem because I could get rid of it; it was their problem if they wanted to stay.  They saw the light.

This same individual ranted recently:
"The Union is not in the best interests of staff - a bunch of self serving red underpants wearing sycophants paying lip service to their own purpose. They get in the way - kick up a fuss - provide bad advice to staff to serve their own agenda and fail to get anything useful out of it. Indeed their failure to provide advice to me probably served me better in the long run."
One lesson that has guided me enormously was one that was demonstrated to me early last year, when I was despondent and feeling destitute after a marriage gone wrong and no money.  I never begged for the money, but I did hint in a blog that I was feeling useless and worthless and was losing hope.  In the space of 3 days, a fellow blogger had galvanised the beautiful people in blogland and I suddenly had enough money to pull together a suit to score the above mentioned role, and messages of support and love that I could slip into my handbag and refer to when urgently required. 

The lesson that I seem to have taken from that overwhelming experience is compassion.  It has enabled me to relate to those who have a reporting line to me not as "my staff" but as equals.  They too are seeking happiness, trying to avoid suffering, they too have known sadness, and despair, they too are seeking to fulfil their needs, and they too are learning about life.

This lesson has been an epiphany for me personally and professionally, and has been instrumental in enabling me to be a much better person than I ever was.  I now volunteer my time and finances to organisations and individuals who I once would never have taken a second glance.  Now, I see hope, determination, and dignity, and I wonder what took me so long to see this lesson.

(And if you were one of those beautiful people, from the bottom of my heart, thank you again.)

Naturally, I am not going to divulge where I work.  And, if our approach works, my team and I will have worked ourselves out of a job within the next 5 years.  Sadly, the portfolio tends to be politically driven to hope for a wind up any earlier than that.

I searched far and wide for a decent book on libertarian management or leadership.  While there are a few lauded theorists, Drucker apparently the most popular, a lot of what I've implemented in my team is actually made up, based on my interpretation of basic libertarian thinking and common sense.

I would love to do a Masters degree on something like this, but with a full time job, and 3 boys aged 6, 4 and 2,  that's not going to happen any time soon.  In the meantime, does anyone have any recommended bedtime reading as an alternative?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chocolates and betrayal aversion

A post by Homepaddock triggered my memory of a psychology article I read as part of a management course a while ago, coupled with an argument raging in my house this weekend over superiority of Easter eggs. I am very partial to plain, hollow, non-Cadbury eggs, and have always spurned the gloopy Creme Eggs. The rest of the family, however, dares to disagree with me, and came back from the supermarket yesterday with vast quantities of disgusting Cadbury chocolates (the disgustingness of which I have blogged about in the past) . They justified this lapse in judgement with, "but you've lost so much weight this year and you're looking really good now and you're so much healthier, so we thought you wouldn't appreciate any temptations.  Probably."

Oh, thank you so much for caring, but your answer is as wrong as that dissatisfying mucus in Creme Eggs.  The fattening aspect did not feature in my decision to go for one chocolate over another, so why do you feel the need to attribute a risk factor now?  The only risk I can identify is chocolate withdrawal, but they seem to have identified an extreme risk of death through fat.

How do people analyse risks to determine the best course of action?

If I take their argument, let me imagine that I was given a choice of a hollow egg and a Creme Egg, and I  was planning to make my decision based on which offered the most protection from death. The Creme Egg has a higher sugar content, and therefore, we'll say, an imaginary 2% risk of death; the Swiss-made hollow egg has no sugary mucus in it, and is therefore supremely healthier (although I concede I have not compared the nutritional information), with a 1% chance of death. All other factors being equal, those who are death averse will choose the hollow egg with the lower sugar, right?

Not necessarily and the reason is a widespread but seldom noted phenomenon: betrayal aversion.

A recent paper by Gershoff and Koehler, Safety First ? The Role of Emotion in Safety Product Betrayal Aversion, published in the January issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, notes that some risks are apparently more frightening than others.
Consumers often face decisions about whether to purchase products that are intended to protect them from possible harm. However, ...products rarely provide perfect protection and sometimes "betray" consumers by causing the very harm they are intended to prevent. Examples include vaccines that may cause disease and air bags that may explode with such force that they cause death. ... 
Using the above Easter deliciousness example, what would happen if consumers were also told that the hollow egg contains a carcinogen, therefore increasing the risk of dying by an additional 0.01%. In other words, the Creme Egg is associated with a 2% risk of death, and the hollow egg is associated with a 1% + 0.01% risk of death.  Of course, this doesn't factor the hormonal risk associated with chocolate deprivation.

Most would choose the Creme Egg, even though it had double the increased risk of  death. That's because, for most participants, the tiny risk of "betrayal" (product malfunction, in this case, carcinogen) is much more frightening that the much larger risk of actually dying.

It is this visceral reaction that causes people to make irrational decisions about what to eat at Easter. When parents balance the much larger risk of a child dying from choking on Creme Egg fat against the tiny chance of a child being injured by a shard of hollow egg fat, they regard the possibility of product betrayal with out-sized horror. And because they are horrified by the tiny risk, they paradoxically choose the much larger risk. Ironically, they actually think that they are "protecting" themselves by embracing the much higher risk of death from gloop fat.

If, after careful consideration of the actual risks, some people elect to accept the higher risk of harm from a Creme Egg over the much smaller risk of harm from a hollow egg, they have every right to do so. But in order to carefully consider the risks, people need to realise that their emotional reaction to product betrayal may be clouding their assessment of the magnitude of the risks.

I'm just saying.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Talk

Mothering is marked by transcendent moments.  I've had those moments while nursing my infants, watching my children play in school sports or perform on stage, and looking on proudly as they graduate from kindy or playgroup.

Teaching children the facts of life is not one of those moments.

Bring an enlightened libertarimum, I vowed that I would not subject my children to agricultural theories of human reproduction.  None of that "daddy planted a seed" bollocks for us.  I planned anatomically correct, age appropriate, completely truthful answers to any questions about sex, supplemented with charts from my father's medical books.  Each of my children will know where babies come from the moment they ask.

I was conscious of the burden.  If I wasn't completely truthful, the toll of this misinformation would be measured in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.

I had the best of intentions.

So, what the hell just happened?

Mr 6 and Mr 4 tentatively walked up together, and stood quietly beside me, I assumed to gather up the courage to tell me that had done something naughty.

Mr 6 was the first to talk.  " Mummy," he asked, "do you remember all three times you had sex?"  I tried to look thoughtful.

"Actually," I replied, "I've had sex more than three times."

His eyes widened.  "Why would anyone do that?"

"Sex is not just for making babies," I explained.  "Most of the time, people have sex because they enjoy sex itself."

He thought about this for a bit, and made a face of disgust.  "Really?  I can't imagine why.  Gross."

I stood there, feeling oddly relieved at how that conversation had gone, while wondering if perhaps they were too young to know this but now it's too late, when Mr 4 piped up.

"I have a question," he declared.  "I just want to know how, after the man takes off his penis and puts it in the woman to make a baby, how does he stick it back on his body?"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fired by doctor. Crime: being too healthy.

I called my son's medical practice. I needed to make an appointment to see the nurse, having just received a letter telling me that Mr 4-year-old was due for his 5 year jabs  as soon as possible.  First available appointment was next Friday (11 days).

But I wasn't allowed to book it.

Let's rewind.

A transcript of the call follows:

Medical Centre: "Hello, ***********Medical Centre.  Please state your NHI number."
Me : "Pardon?"
Medical Centre: (talking loudly, perhaps in case I don't speak Unglush): "PLEASE STATE YOUR NHI NUMBER."
Me: "Oh. Ummmm I'm actually just calling up to make an appointment with the nurse for my son's 5-year-old jabs. I got a letter the other day. I only need to see the nurse, not the doctor. Why do you need my NHI number? Or his NHI number?"
Medical Centre: "Answer the question."
Me: "No. You answer the question."
Medical Centre: "Do you have his NHI number then?"
Me: "Of course not!"
Medical Centre: "SIGH. Fine. What's your first name?"
Me: "The appointment is for my son to see the nurse. Do you want his first name, perhaps?"
Medical Centre: "No. I want your first name, your surname, any previous surnames you have had, your date of birth, current address, previous address if you have lived at your current address for less than 5 years....."
Me: (dutifully answered, stifling the tourettes syndrome infiltrating my brain)
Medical Centre: "Now give me his first name, his surname, any previous surnames he has had, his date of birth, current address, previous address if he has lived at the current address for less than 5 years....."
Me: (dutifully answered.)
Medical Centre: "Oh. He has a different surname to yours. You should have said. How do I know he's your son?"

Not surprisingly, she found my record. Then his record. But she noticed it had been 2 years since he last had an appointment.

Now I was in trouble.

I said, “He last came in for his 3 year jabs. He has visited a hospital in the meantime for a nasty injury, but aside from that, he's been healthy."

To which she said, “Well, I’ll have to e-mail the doctor. He’ll need to agree to the practice seeing him since it’s been so long.” It gets worse: “It’s going to be another week until we know,” she said. “He’s on leave this week, so it may not be until next week that you hear if your son can get in. Unless he is checking e-mail while away.”

Have we just been fired by his practice for not coming in?

"But", I countered, quite reasonably. "We never see the doctor with these vaccinations. The nurse sees us, and then sends us off once she's given the all clear. The doctor never makes an appearance. I just want an appointment for his routine jabs. What does it matter if the doctor is on leave?  ******stifling rant noises****** Ahjustforgetaboutit. Fine.  Let's grab that appointment then, so I don’t lose the opportunity. If need be, you can cancel it.”


Medical Centre: "I see you have health insurance for you and your children?"

Me: "What!?  Yes.  So what?"

She declined to make the appointment.

Having undertaken an empirical investigation of other doctors' practices, I am happy to say it didn't take long to find a much more polite practice, who seemed delighted that I have health insurance.

Health care isn’t supposed to feel like this. Doctors should never expect their patients to feel like they can’t access them, that they “expire” if they remain healthy, or that they are an e-mail decision away from being in or out of the fold of care. Their patients' medical record number should never usurp their name. This shouldn’t be about “working the system”, turning up for an appointment even when healthy just so that I or my children don't get fired from the books. This distance between doctors and patients is counterproductive.  Does the funding regime incentivise poor health and repeat visits?  I had the freedom, wellbeing and mobility to shop around for an alternative.  I feel for those who are trapped at that practice.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Battle hymn of the Labrador Libertarimum

Ah!  Bliss!  I finally get a chance to return to my much-missed venting post.  Apologies for the last teaser that just left everything dangling.

Life since mid-last year has been a frenzy, and I marvel at those who work full time, have kids, and still find the time and energy to vent meaningfully and intelligently, rather than collapsing into bed and falling asleep before your head hits the pillow.  Don't get me wrong - I do vent, and a lot, but it tends to be work-related, face-to-face, and I therefore am careful of the words I choose and the company I keep.

So, now I get a chance to chill, although it took a major op to make me find the time again to blog (the op wasn't related to hypoblogging).

While I was recuperating, one well-meaning but deluded soul mistakenly assumed that, because I  have three kids, I must therefore read parenting books.  Note: number of parenting books I have read in my life = 0.  Number of parenting books I intend to read = 0).  The proffered book: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother".


For those who successfully missed the storm of self-righteousness, congratulations.  Amy Chua has been making herself known for defending her ultra demanding parenting style (not that I'm aware of anyone publicly challenging her, so why she wrote the book, I'm unsure).  Ms Chua asserts that her extreme "Chinese"-style of parenting produces superior children.

Chua didn't let her own girls go out on play dates or sleepovers.  She didn't let them watch tv or play video games, or take part in activities like crafts.  Once, one of her daughters came in second to a Korean kid in a maths competition, so Chua made her daughter do 2,000 maths problems a night until she regained her supremacy (the daughter's supremacy, presumably).  Once, her daughters gave her birthday cards that she deemed to be of insufficient quality, so Chua rejected them and demanded new cards.  Once, she threatened to burn all of her daughter's stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfectly.

Through a leap of logic that isn't immediately clear to me, the result of this was Chua's daughters got straight As, and won a series of musical competitions.

Well, if mother (and presumably father too?) and daughters are content with this strategy, then I wish them all the best and ask that they don't contact me to boast when my sons come back from their tennis lessons with broken tennis racquets because they discovered rugby balls can't substitute tennis balls.

I believe Chua is actually protecting her children from the most intellectually demanding activities, because she doesn't understand what is cognitively difficult and what isn't.  Practising a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.  Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between group and self: these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that squash any intense disciplinary or tutoring sessions.

If you hadn't already guessed, I'm ambivalent about Chua's ideas.  Admittedly, I only glanced at the book briefly before deciding its rightful place was in the hospital sterile rubbish bin (never a pleasant place).  She fails to approach the issue of child rearing and education from any systematic, well considered perspective.  I say this as a parent who admires the Montessori-style systematic and logical approach, and related disciplinary techniques.  But I also think diversity in parenting styles is fine.  To each their own.

But Chua led me to ponder (ok, recovery from a major op is boring) what a similar list might look like for a state-hating libertarian parent.  Here's what I came up with.

My sons will not:

  • be punished for not getting an A;
  • be conscripted by the state to fight in its wars;
  • be subjected to pro-state, pro-environmentalist propaganda, without the mother giving them anti-propaganda vaccinations at home;
  • be forced to recycle;
  • be lied to by their parents;
  • be spanked or otherwise abusively punished;
  • be taught that it is their duty to pay taxes;
  • be taught that aggression in any form, private or public, is okay;
  • be made to feel they have an "obligation" to "give something back" to "society" (quote marks used because I'm not sure what those words really mean);
  • be talked down to just  because they are children;
  • be unaware of libertarian intellectual traditions;
  • be made to feel their parents can't wait for them to grow up and get out of either parent's house;
  • be made to feel like they are unwanted or a burden;
  • be allowed to object to at least 10 kisses a day;
  • be treated like less than a full human being with rights and dignity, just because they are "under age".
I confess, with my kids I am a labrador, to the extent that I will even eat their unfinished dinner.  I'll stick to this for now.  It's easier, more fun (if a little daring at times), and seems to be working for everyone.  

May this be a lesson to anyone who deigns to give me a parenting book.