The third series of ‘Utopia’, the fan favourite for all who have worked in an office, premiered last month. The series — created by the prolific Working Dog team — tells of the National Building Authority’s coexisting contrary tensions of bureaucracy and ‘blue sky’ ambitions.
At the outset, let me disclose that I spent more than 15 years in a variety of roles in public service and am now back in the private world.
The show is great — the ministerial adviser tries to highlight the positives of the NBA’s ambitions, while the authority itself grapples with its commission to be ambitious in its outlook. The show makes its mark by illustrating the tensions between the government, its ministers and the institutions that oversee it, all while the NBA attempts to complete public brief it has to envision the future.
The thing that concerns me is not the laughs at the bureaucracy’s expense, it’s what it points out about the private sector. The big-picture thinking that always gets a laugh, is now nowhere to be seen.
Because it can’t be. Only government is able to take the risk to lead such big change.
The private sector not only can’t – but won’t. It doesn’t have the mandate, the appetite or the ability to dream large with these projects. The trope that “we don’t need the government” as Rob Sitch’s character says in episode one, becomes simply wrong. No entity but the government can make a decision or show the leadership that is needed to execute projects that bring about fundamental changes to society.
Further, the contemporary discussion about ‘small’ government and that it should get out of the way of business is also a nonsense. If we didn’t have government imagining these large projects, taking risks that the private sector can’t even conceive of, and spending the money (yes, our money), society would be nothing like it is today.
We do well to understand the context in which government works, because it is important.
This leadership trickles down: while the government mandates that women, people with a disability or indigenous peoples have a significant contribution to play in society, the private sector is far behind.
As a former bureaucrat, ‘Utopia’ makes me laugh. Yes, I’ve seen these behaviours: where the tyranny and vanity of politics overrules all. But it also makes me sad, because it mocks the leadership role that government plays, and the vision and ideas that the private sector can’t possibly imagine.
Next time you leave home (which is standing solidly, because government regulations mandated it should be built to a certain standard), think about the water, electricity and other services you use, the roads you drive on, footpaths you walk on, and trains you might catch. While they may be delivered by the private sector, they were planned and imagined by governments.
And without them, we would be significantly worse off.
Andrew Ferrington is the national tenders manager at Findex Group.