Public Service in Papua New Guinea

last updated: January 2020

Like some other countries in the Pacific Island region, the public service is the largest employer in PNG, with 105,000 people employed as public officials (Pryke and Barker 2017). The public service includes administrative and “frontline” staff (such as teachers, who make up 52% of the workforce). Ten percent work for provincial administrations, while 12.9% work in national departments. In mid-2014, when the public sector employed just over 98,000 people, administrative positions (which are the focus of this chapter) included those working in executive (0.1%), senior (1.3%), middle (5%), and junior (26%) levels (Haley 2016).

Public servants are operating in a rapidly changing economic, political, and administrative environment. PNG’s fiscal crisis is arguably the biggest challenge facing the public service. Academics have painted a dire picture of PNG’s economic situation noting, “falling government revenue, large expenditure cuts to basic services, evidence of negative economic growth, and a fixed, overvalued exchange rate, supported by foreign exchange rationing” (Fox et al. 2017, p. 1). The public service has felt the effects of this fiscal tightening. Cash flow crises have meant public servants’ pay is often late, and some departments have not received promised funds (Garrett 2016).

Decentralization is the next greatest challenge facing the public service. PNG has three tiers of government (national, provincial, and local) with four levels of administration (national-, provincial-, district-, and local-level government). The country’s 1995 Organic Law on Provincial Governments and Local Level Governments provided a framework for decentralizing service delivery to locallevel and provincial governments. Many have questioned the effectiveness of this reform: a review found inadequate funding, poor capacity and oversight, and political manipulation has undermined decentralization efforts in the county
(Kalinoe 2009).

Nonetheless, recent reforms have reinvigorated the country’s decentralization agenda. The District Development Authority Act (2014) devolves administrative and financial powers to the country’s 89 districts. Provincial-, district-, and locallevel constituency development grants (known as Service Improvement Programs [SIP]) have also increased over the past 5 years. SIP funding arrangements have increased political interference – particularly at the district level through newly instituted District Development Authorities – with members of parliament (MPs) often personally involved in deciding how this money is allocated and implemented; this has exacerbated concerns about corruption and poor administration (Kama 2017). Decentralization has also led to greater opportunities for public-private partnerships, which are set to increase in number due to the increased powers granted to District Development Authorities to engage with the private sector. While the PNG government has lauded this development, many are concerned it has the potential to increase corruption (Davda and Walton 2017; Walton and Jones 2017).

In 2019, citizens in Bougainville province will likely go to the polls to vote on whether it will become independent from PNG or have greater autonomy. The Prime Minister (PM) at the time of writing, Peter O’Neill, has agreed that three additional provinces – East New Britain, Enga, and New Ireland (which is included in this study) – have greater control over their administration and finances. The PM has suggested that this arrangement could be replicated throughout the country. These renewed efforts to decentralize government make understanding the views of public servants working at the subnational level (as this chapter seeks to do) even more important.

Other recent legislative changes have put pressure on the country’s bureaucracy. The Public Services (Management) Act (2014), passed under PM O’Neill’s government, led to a restructuring of the process for appointing senior public servants. It established the Ministerial Executive Appointments Committee chaired by the Minister responsible as well as other government ministers and public servants (Kama 2017). Kama (2017) argues that this arrangement has increased political interference, and Haley (2016) notes that the act “gives MPs a formal role in hiring and firing decisions at the subnational level.”

The challenges brought about by these reforms exacerbate other pressures facing public servants. In the absence of a welfare state, the wantok system (a system of reciprocity between friendship and kinship groups) provides important social protection for many citizens. However, it also means public servants are pressured to provide unofficial favors to their wantoks, which can lead to the sometimes-illegal redistribution of state resources.

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