Allan Takes Aim Blog

“The Peter Principle” is still flourishing

Posted on: 29 June 2011

Published The Chronicle Canberra, Tuesday,28 June 2011

 Nineteen sixty nine was an important year for the Allan family because that was the year we arrived in Australia. But it was an important year for another reason: it was was also the year in which Dr Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull brought ‘The Peter Principle” to the public’s notice in their new book of the same name.

The book raised the eyebrows of employees, particularly supervisors and people in middle management, in some organisations. What raised their eyebrows was its suggestion that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position at which they cannot work competently, a philosophy with which they were in total agreement, particularly with regard to some of their bosses.

Intially, however, most people thought The Peter Principle only happened in heavy industry but, as time went by, many people in large private sector businesses saw it at work as some of their co- workers whom they thought more sycophant than skilled, became its beneficiaries. And with the passing of time, many employees in public and political organisations saw The Peter Principle become entrenched in their culture.

In publicly owned businesses it was the case that directors promoted family members and personal friends to senior managerial positions even though they knew they had no real management skill. But such promotion came with a price: when called on, the promoted friend/relative would be required to support their benefactor without question.

I hasten to add that not all the people appointed in this way were poor managers: many, indeed, were great successes. For example: in the media, one need go no further than the progeny of Murdoch and Packer and in general entrepreunership, the progeny of Robert Holmes a Court. As for the failures, of the many such appointees, too many managed, or nearly managed, to wreck great companies.              

Although I have never been in the public service, many public service friends, some of whom I have known for nearly forty years, have told me The Peter Principle enjoys a high level of use in the public service. This is not surprising because it is a form of bribery that tends to be found in organisations with extensive hierarchical structures in which thousands of people are related.

Canberra, has such structures: the Commonwealth and ACT Public Service. The role of the Commonweath Public Service is to administer Canberra’s national functions on behalf of the Federal Government whilethe role of the ACT Public Service is to administer ACT functions on behalf of the Territory Government..     

The ACT Service administers a huge range of services: health, education, police, the arts to name but a few, in which I am told The Peter Principle was once rife. However, as the ACT grew more confident at self government and needed of ambitious people with good management skills, I am told it has become less so. That’s a good news story about the bureaucracy; I only wish I could say the same about politics.

Unfortunately I can’t. That I can’t is the fault of voters, not politicians, for allowing The Peter Principle to subvert democracy. This subversion has occurred because we have allowed faction leaders in every political party to act like business magnates of old by mentoring inadequate candidates for parliament on the unspoken, but no less clear understanding, that if successful, they shoud remember the piper who called the tune. 

In politics, such mentoring has elevated The Peter Principle to a very high level, a statement former Federal Labor Minister John Faulkner and two respected and successful Labor State Premiers, Steve Brack and Bob Carr, seem to agree with in their recent report into the ALP that was commissioned by the ALP.

But the Liberal, Greens and other parties should take no pleasure in the revelations made by this  public washing of Labor’s dirty linen. Indeed, it should encourage them to do the same.

Voters too, should be telling all parties that participative democracy in the ACT has all but died but could be resuscitated by getting rid of the factional dictators within their parties who use The Peter Principle to progress their favourites for the purpose of manipulating them to their advantage. 

The Chronicle for Canberra’s best  community news. Published every Tuesday


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