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The Office of Forbidding Midday Alcohol Consumption

October 30th, 2014 Comments off

And you thought the nanny state was bad enough in Australia. Well the city of Shangqiu in Henan province has gone a step further. In 2007 it set up the Office of Forbidding Midday Alcohol Consumption to reduce alcohol consumption at government-funded lunches. No nipping out for a quiet glass at your own expense either. Officials were forbidden from consuming alcohol during the day. Staff members of the Office of Forbidding Midday Alcohol Consumption wait at the doors of restaurants, randomly inspect offices, and talk with officials to see if anyone has disobeyed the rule.

Details of this and other interesting aspects of China’s massive bureaucracy are given in the latest Tea Leaf Nation report “Foot Spas, Steamed Buns, and Midday Drinking”. Those steamed buns, it seems, are a matter of vital concern.

The proliferation of steamed bun offices has been causing trouble since at least 2001, when a local paper reported that in Zhengzhou alone, there were a total of six steamed bun offices at various levels, all of which held the power to approve (or to halt) the production of buns, a staple food for Henan residents. Jurisdictional conflicts often took place between these six offices, and the Zhengzhou city government later revoked their charters. But that hasn’t stopped other provinces from operating their own steamed bun regulatory committees. An Oct. 23 article in national outlet Beijing News showed staff from the steamed bun office in the ancient capital of Xi’an conducting a spot check on the weight of buns in a local kitchen.

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I was rather taken by The Watermelon Office.

This organization in Zhengzhou, the capital of the central province of Henan, helps suburban farmers sell their watermelons in the city by creating a “watermelon map” to connect buyers and vendors. The watermelon office isn’t short on social media savvy; the office now boasts over 50,000 followers on its verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter.

2014-10-30_watermelonofficeChina’s state owned media are publicising efforts to streamline such “redundant” local committees out of existence following the June 2013 launch of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “mass-line campaign,” which seeks to fight corruption by bringing cadres in the ruling Communist Party closer to the people they ostensibly serve. The Xinhua newsagency reported this month on the efforts to reduce bureaucracy and red tape. But the redundancies are easier to claim than to achieve.

Tea Leaf Nation noted:

State media may be trumpeting Xi’s mass-line cleanup a bit prematurely. Some of the cited organizations continue to exist. After the publication of Xinhua’s critical article, the director of the Watermelon Office told one news outlet that the office would not be disbanded and would continue to serve farmers next year. There is no evidence showing the Pingshan government has gutted its ragweed removal outfit. And according to the website of the Xi’an Grain Bureau, its version of a steamed bun authority still persists.

 

Remember when public servants were impartial? and other news and views for Tuesday 5 August

August 5th, 2014 Comments off
  •  Remember when public servants were impartial? – “Too many government officials are seemingly ignoring their legal obligation to be apolitical.”
  • Has paper money outlived its purpose? – “Serious people have been suggesting that we think hard about eliminating paper currency. Paper money facilitates criminality and creates the zero lower bound (ZLB) for nominal interest rates. So, why not just get rid of it and replace it with electronic money?”
  • Trickling down– John Quiggin writes: ‘Even those who believe, or are paid to say, that favored treatment for the rich will benefit the poor mostly avoid the term “trickle down”, preferring bromides like “a rising tide lift all boats”. But that didn’t deter Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor of ANU and head of the Group of 8 Universities (basically, those established first, which have, as elsewhere in the world, gained a permanent high-status position as a result). As I predicted not long ago, he wants to raise fees and reduce the number of students at elite universities, including ANU, allowing them to offer a more personalised education.’

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One for that Joe Hockey audit commission: change the font and save millions

March 31st, 2014 Comments off

Chanel No. 5 perfume costs $38 per ounce. The equivalent amount of Hewlett-Packard printer ink can cost up to $75. So if you are a big printer like a government saving ink can produce a big saving.

That was the theory of 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani when he was given the task at his Pittsburgh-area middle school of trying to think of ways to cut waste and save money . CNN tells the story:

2014-03-31_fonts

Interested in applying computer science to promote environmental sustainability, Suvir decided he was going to figure out if there was a better way to minimize the constant flurry of paper and ink.

Reducing paper use through recycling and dual-sided printing had been talked about before as a way to save money and conserve resources, but there was less attention paid to the ink for which the paper served as a canvas for history and algebra handouts…

Collecting random samples of teachers’ handouts, Suvir concentrated on the most commonly used characters (e, t, a, o and r).

First, he charted how often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then he measured how much ink was used for each letter, using a commercial tool called APFill® Ink Coverage Software.

Next he enlarged the letters, printed them and cut them out on cardstock paper to weigh them to verify his findings. He did three trials for each letter, graphing the ink usage for each font.

From this analysis, Suvir figured out that by using Garamond with its thinner strokes, his school district could reduce its ink consumption by 24%, and in turn save as much as $21,000 annually.

Encouraged by his teacher, Suvir looked to publish his findings and stumbled on the Journal for Emerging Investigators (JEI), a publication founded by a group of Harvard grad students in 2011 that provides a forum for the work of middle school and high school students. It has the same standards as academic journals, and each submission is reviewed by grad students and academics.

Suvrir was then challenged  to apply his project to a larger scale: the federal government which, with has an annual printing expenditure of $1.8 billion.

Suvir repeated his tests on five sample pages from documents on the Government Printing Office website and got similar results —change the font, save money.

Using the General Services Administration’s estimated annual cost of ink — $467 million — Suvir concluded that if the federal government used Garamond exclusively it could save nearly 30% — or $136 million per year. An additional $234 million could be saved annually if state governments also jumped on board, he reported.

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Food star system wonderful fodder for Senate estimates hearings and one up the bracket for Coalition ministerial staff selection process

February 13th, 2014 Comments off

The Coalition took a long time to settle the appointment of ministerial staffers with ministers grumbling about the role of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin in checking the credentials of applicants. The grumblings were deemed worthy of bearing by PM Tony Abbott because of the benefits that would flow from stopping silly appointments by ministers not conscious of the future damage that conflicts of interest can cause. Alas, it seems, the highly centralised appointments system failed. Having a food industry lobbyist on the staff of a health minister – albeit a junior one but the one with responsibility for food matters – was risky enough. But not ensuring that there was a complete break from the lobbying business was downright stupid. Thus the Abbott government is now going through its first little conflict of interest kerfuffle for breaching its own statement of standards for ministerial staff. Those rules insist that ministers and their staff must disclose any real or apparent conflict of interest and divest themselves of any interests in private companies involved in the area of their ministerial responsibilities.

Alastair Furnival, the adviser who intervened to have the Department of Health take down a new healthy food star rating website, retains his shares in the lobbying business, now run by his wife Tracey Cain, that used to act for companies in the soft drink and confectionery industries. The assurance by Ms Cain that she had not made any representations on behalf of food industry clients since September helps mitigate the political damage but does not remove the suspicion that the Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash has acted in a way favourable to the junk food industry.

The Senate estimates committee dealing with health will find this a fertile area for enquiry when next it meets with particular interest in the initial claim that the healthy food star rating system website was put up by accident rather than design. The reallocation of responsibility within the Health Department for the now deferred ratings system makes that seem a most unlikely occurrence. On the Fairfax websites this morning, Amy Corderoy, Health Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, reported that the senior government bureaucrat in charge of the new healthy food star ratings has been stripped of responsibility for the program.

In an email obtained by Fairfax Media, Kathy Dennis, the assistant secretary in the Healthy Living and Food Policy branch of the Department of Health, said she would no longer be in charge of the healthy star ratings, which is a system for food manufacturers to voluntarily label their product packaging with easy-to-understand health information.

“I am writing to provide you with updated information about arrangements for the Front-of-Pack Labelling Secretariat, following a restructure within the Department of Health,” Ms Dennis writes. She states that she will continue to be in charge of all other food matters beside the healthy food ratings, which she has worked on for the past two years.

“I look forward to continuing to work with you on all other food matters,” she says.

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Preventing government IT disasters

January 29th, 2014 Comments off

We have had a few of these in Australia so should our legislators be following the lead of their US Congressional counterparts?

One Way Lawmakers Are Trying To Prevent Government IT Disasters : All Tech Considered : NPR.

HealthCare.gov’s infamous failure to launch has inspired some fresh legislation that aims to organize and streamline the currently scattered — and expensive — approach to multimillion-dollar technology projects built by the government and its contractors.

Specifically, the measure, which is co-sponsored by Reps Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., calls for the creation a U.S. Digital Government Office, charged with reviewing and guiding major IT projects of all federal agencies. It also makes permanent the role of U.S. Chief Technology Officer, a position that has only existed in recent years under the Obama administration.

HealthCare.gov’s disastrous debut brought to light long-festering issues with how the government handles technology projects — contracting processes favor entrenched vendors who don’t deliver efficiently or effectively, tech talent that’s available inside government is lacking and there are hundreds of agencies running in several directions on services that duplicate efforts and resources…

A few notable provisions in the bill:

  1. The Digital Government Office would have authority over all agencies’ large IT projects. (Currently these are run by the individual agencies and not overseen by a tech-savvy office that knows what it’s doing/buying.)
  2. It gives the Chief Technology Officer the power to hire people outside of the standard government pay schedule, allowing government agencies to pay people at salaries competitive to jobs in the tech private sector.
  3. The bill also seeks to increase competition for contracting work, which is currently a field made up of the same handful of players who tend to get expensive and often unsuccessful results. Currently, agencies have to go through a rigorous process to buy the work/start contracts for technology projects that cost more than $150,000. Projects smaller than that are comparatively simple to hire for and more agile companies bid for those. So the bill increases “small acquisition thresholds” from $150,000 to $500,000 — making it easier for government to buy small technology projects.

This won’t be the final form the bill takes; it’s only a draft right now. Lawmakers released it to invite discussion, which will be happening in the coming weeks and months.

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Losing the best and brightest young public servants

November 11th, 2013 Comments off

There’s fear and loathing in Canberra – fear of losing your job while the value of your home plummets and a loathing of the politicians responsible for trying to reduce the size of the public service without payments to those made redundant. And the discontent is not confined to those now finding themselves on what the Australian Public Service Commission calls the “redeployment register.” Many of the younger public servants of my acquaintance are now realising that the method chosen by the Coalition government to cull 12,000 from the public service will stymie for years their own prospects of promotion.

That there will soon be an exodus of the best and the brightest young minds to jobs in the private sector outside of the national capital in one sense will not concern the government. In the short term it will simply contribute to the natural attrition it is seeking. When the aim is to honour this part of the pre-election rhetoric of quickly reducing the budget deficit the long term consequences are not considered.

When combined with a near freeze on new recruitment from outside those consequences will be both considerable and bad.

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