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Solving policy problems in government - ‘The bog’

By George Fripley - posted Monday, 15 December 2008

On some occasions, and these will hopefully be rare, there will come a time when a policy problem of such magnitude arises that decisions will have to be made and actions taken. The policy in question may need to be revised, or even replaced. These problems are likely to be due to: advances in technology or science impacting on regulatory agencies’ ability to operate; economic imperatives,; or a “catastrophe” such as a government insisting that policies are revised with this being so patently beneficial to the public that even career bureaucrats will be reluctant to get in the way for too long.

Experienced public servants will start to realise something is wrong a little while before this happens when the “bog” occurs. This is just as when you are driving over soft ground, you get this sinking feeling that comes when you realise that the ground you are on is not as robust as you thought it was. Very soon you find yourself sinking and in danger of becoming bogged. An experienced public servant will try to keep a steady foot on the accelerator and keep the policy viable for as long as possible through a variety of procrastination techniques. The inexperienced will put their foot down in an all-out attempt to prove that the policy vehicle being driven can swiftly ride away from trouble and continue to maintain its relevance.

The first approach may work, but the likelihood is it won’t if the ground is as soft as it feels. The second approach will result in a rapid descent into the mire therefore becoming well and truly stuck. At times like this, it is traditional to invoke the “I’m bogged” method or approach.


All geologists (at least those that can drag themselves out from behind their computers and into the field), field assistants, and four-wheel drive enthusiasts will be aware of this three-staged approach.

Step 1 - I’m not really bogged, we’ll be out of here soon

What usually happens is that a cursory inspection of “the bog” situation is carried out and a decision is quickly reached that the problem is not too severe. All that needs to be done is to get back behind the wheel, crank up the revs and “we’ll be out of here in no time”. This is complete denial, and a result of self-delusion of the highest order.

Government does this too. It refuses to admit that a problem exists and simply asks everyone to work harder. No change of policy or approach occurs, as this would show a “dangerous” level of initiative. No decisions will be made as it will be hoped that the problem will just go away. All this time you are spinning your wheels furiously and splattering mud over all those being helpful by trying to get you out of the trouble you’re in. After some six months or so, it might become apparent to you however, that there is actually a problem, and that it has become a lot worse. You have also covered all your potential allies in mud!

Step 2 - OK. I’m a little bit stuck, but if we dig out the tyres we’ll be out of here in no time

This is still a form of denial: there is still a refusal to accept the truth of what is patently there for all to see. So out you get with your shovel and dig out each of the tyres and put a bog-mat under each one to ensure they get traction. Then it’s back and revving up the engine once more before the joy of traction is felt.

In government this translates to a realisation that a problem does exist. A new policy is indeed required. Someone is charged with evaluating the current policy and making changes to accommodate the new circumstances. A pathetically inadequate amount of time is given to this process, along with an insubstantial budget.

This approach is trumpeted loudly with the suggestion that everything is in hand and that it’ll be fixed very soon. This policy is then released for public comment and is roundly condemned as being unworkable. It has simply addressed the symptoms rather than the fundamental causes of the problem. You’re not bogged because your wheels are in the mud, you’re bogged because you didn’t keep an eye out and turn before you got into the soft ground.


A grand total of about two metres is gained before you once again sink up to your axles in the mud. Once again you’re stuck and this process has taken about a year.

Step 3 - I accept that I am bogged and I need to build a road to solid ground

It is time to admit that your current policy is not up to scratch, and that a brand new policy is needed.

Yes, it’s time to go for a walk and survey the landscape. You’ll need to find where the hard ground is and then it will be time to go and find the resources to build road that will get you there. Tree branches, rocks and anything else that might be available will need to be gathered and laid down to provide passage to solid ground.

A great deal of time and effort is needed to research what needs to be done and a great deal of consultation needs to be carried out. We’re talking innovation, communication and decision-making, and these are all areas foreign to many public servants who have survived through implementing the five paradigms of government.

The smart public servant will have realised all this and will have already been working on solutions. When the CEO, under pressure from the politicians, is desperately seeking solutions, they will be able to come to the rescue. The CEO will love them for it as it will get them out of a tricky situation. They will then, of course, realise that the public servant in question is possibly a lot smarter than they are and therefore possibly dangerous. The most likely outcome is that hints will be dropped that there are senior opportunities in other departments, and a glowing reference is available to go with them. This is the quick way to achieve promotion, and only comes along once in a while. All public servants should learn to look out for such circumstances.

After an exhaustive 18 months there will be a new policy produced that nobody is really happy with, and which is probably about a year behind the times, but it’s better than nothing. The whole process from becoming bogged to finding a passable if slightly inadequate solution will take almost three years.

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About the Author

George Friplely has worked in the public service for more than eight years, and in that time has risen to the dizzying heights of managing an agency (for a brief period of time). He has a great deal of experience in dealing with the day-to-day decision-making processes and has a wealth of knowledge about government process. He is currently in hiding among the stacks of files in his government department, hoping that his revelations do not cause him to become the subject of an ASIO investigation, or worse still, that somebody realises that he actually exists and sends some work his way! George blogs at and George's thoughts on government and bureaucracy are now available in the definitive government employees manual, You Can't Polish A Turd - the Civil Servant's Manual, published by Night Publishing. His next book provisionally titled The Dregs of History is due for release in 2011.

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