Sinecures and Shoulder-Tapping in another Small State.

It must be my week for thinking about small states in personal terms. I only took an interest in the specific dynamics of small states when I moved to NZ, having previously written mostly about larger states (although I did write a bit on Cuba and Uruguay before moving to NZ). Living in NZ exposed me not only to the political dynamics of a small democracy, but the social dynamics as well. Things like the 2 degrees of separation that make putting distance on ex-partners very difficult. Things like the rapidity with which one’s personal life becomes the object of professional speculation, and how quickly rumors in one dimension transfer to the other. Things like blacklisting, sinecures and shoulder-tapping.

I write this more as an open question to readers. My question rests against the backdrop of NZ being proclaimed as the least corrupt country on earth by one polling outfit, and the general consensus that it is one of the more successful liberal democracies in existence. But if liberal democratic success is defined as the absence of corruption in and ascriptive rationales for social advancement, plus the universal presence of merit, equality and transparency in public and private upward mobility, can we really claim that NZ is a “success” on those terms?

I may stand corrected on this, but it strikes me that for a democracy NZ has an unusually high incidence of shoulder-tapping and sinecure-mongering. Shoulder-tapping is the practice of rigging a competition by pre-selecting the favorite candidate or outcome, then going through the motions of a transparent and equitable process so as to disguise the pre-determined choice. As an example, consider this from NZ academia. A well-known academic with international credentials is encouraged by the Director of a university research centre to apply for a newly opened position. The invitation is accepted, letters, resume and referee names forwarded, only to have the application rejected within weeks. When asked for the reasons why the application was rejected after the applicant was encouraged to apply, the Director stated that internal competition for the position was fierce and better candidates emerged. Months later it is revealed that weeks before the “search” began for a candidate, an academic at another NZ institution with ties to the Director was approached for the job and eventually awarded it. The international candidate “search” in other words, was a cover for the selection of the shoulder-tapped individual.

In another instance drawn from academia, a search committee was formed to find suitable candidates for a specific disciplinary sub-field. Unbeknown to two of the committee members, the other three members, including the Chair, as well as the external faculty representative, were all co-authors of  a husband-and-wife candidate duo vying to be short-listed. Not surprisingly the duo were listed as the best candidates out of ten finalists by their four co-authors. No conflict of interest is declared. When one of the other committee members discovers the connection and complains to the Faculty Dean about the clear conflict of interest involved in the search process he is given a warning not to disparage the professional integrity of his colleagues. But his protestations continue. The search ends with a compromise candidate being selected, but in the next year the Chair resigns and joins the husband and wife team at a foreign university while the whistleblower winds up being (as it turns out unjustifiably) dismissed on another matter in which one of the committee members with a conflict of interest played a decisive role . The Lesson? Interfere with a shoulder-tapping exercise at your peril.

This are just two illustrations from one profession. I have been told of or have seen myself dozens of other cases–including in such places as my old surf lifesaving club–where the shoulder-tap, with or without a wink and a nod, is used as a means for advancement under the cover of ostensibly “fair” elections, tenders and searches. Sports associations, voluntary organisations, service societies, public bureaucracy, the education system, unions, the media, local councils, the legal profession, political parties, a wide swathe of private businesses and business interest aggregators, perhaps even the Police and Fire Services, hopefully not the military–is there any part of NZ society in which this is not part of the unwritten norms governing career and personal advancement? My question then is: am I wrong in seeing something amiss here? Am I exaggerating the extent to which this occurs?

Likewise goes for the issue of sinecures. A sinecure is a position offered to someone that entails little actual responsibility and is awarded not on merit but as a form of patronage or reward for services rendered. In NZ there appears, again to my uninformed mind, to be a lot of sinecurism in virtually every walk of life. Ex-politicians, ex-bureaucrats and ex-ministers get comfy senior positions in state entities and private boards regardless of their backgrounds or records in a given field. Individuals with much private wealth but little other distinction serve on boards, committees and trusts. There is an affirmative action sub-type in which persons from ethnic minorities are awarded well-paid “honorary” positions or those mentioned previously regardless of their qualifications. From local councils to national-level politics and enterprise, sinecurism seems to be endemic.

NZ is not alone when it comes to such practices, so my question is whether these are just more obvious in a small (democratic) state when compared to a  larger one, or is the practice itself more frequent in small democracies, NZ in particular? 

It needs to be noted that these practices are not equivalent to clientalism. Although shoulder-tapping and sinecurism are seemingly endemic in NZ and can be considered to be institutionalised, they are not recognised as such and in fact occur beneath the mantle of egalitarianism, transparency and merit. They are therefore informal, nepotistic institutional practices that operate under the cover of a rationalist meritocratic Weberian ideal. Clientalism, on the other hand, is a formal institutionalised practice whereby political or personal networking lines combine with merit-based criteria into channels of upward mobility. Such is the case in the small state in which I live, where political allegiance to the dominant party is a requirement, along with professional competence, for career advancement in both the public bureaucracy as well as in state enterprises. In the private sector personal networks outweigh political ones in the clientalist scheme, but here too there is an overlap between the personal and political.

What is different is that in clientalist systems patronage is based on the combination of relative merit and political or personal connections. In the sinecure and shoulder-tap system patronage has little or no relationship to relative merit–it is in fact a non-meritocratic form of favourtism based upon ascriptive rationales of social advancement and mutual entitlement.

As I said before, I could be all wrong about this and am merely extrapolating widely from my own personal observations and experience. Nor would any of this matter if NZ were not a liberal democracy supposedly committed to fair play, social justice and equal opportunity. But since it is, and because Kiwis tend to think of themselves as being better on these dimensions than most other democracies, then my questions about the role shoulder-tapping and sinecures play in NZ society are worth consideration.

I shall leave for another post the prevalence of professional blacklisting in NZ, but suffice to say that I have some experience with it.

8 thoughts on “Sinecures and Shoulder-Tapping in another Small State.

  1. Saddens me to have to agree with you on this one, but I most certainly do.
    And as an ex patrol 4 can confirm your words in regard to “that” surfclub as being totally accurate. :o(

  2. I don’t think you’re much wrong. I see the Transparency International surveys, and wonder just what kinds of “perceptions of corruption” they actually measure.

    New Zealand is small enough that you inevitably have some connection to someone, and this can work for the better, or for the worse. I don’t know if there’s a way around it completely, but transparency in decision makeing certainly helps.

  3. I think it is just more obvious in a small state- I think shoulder-tapping in particular is widespread internationally in academia, and also some of the professions, especially medicine.

    It’s very easy to justify shoulder-tapping in a small field- within medicine you could argue that the person had particular relevant skills/experience which the department felt necessary, which no other candidate had- and I think often this is the case. An example would be searching for a new cardiologist for a hospital with sub-specialty training in cardiac electrophysiology: the job-title is limited to cardiologist, and only in the sub-text is the specialistation listed.

    Sometimes the skills are less tangible, and although they are known in advance and difficult to outline in a job description. An example might be searching for an individual with a necessary research interest, however their training background is geared toward a future in academic administration/education rather then dedicated research.

    Other situtations where it is more explicit is where candidates have been told year in advance that a position is likely to come up in a given department, and the department takes an interest in the candidate in the hope that a local can be appointment to position. I don’t think this is necessarily undesirable and often departments are very open about it, because for retention purposes, they want someone whom is from the area (geographically and or professionally), committed to the area, and is therefore likely to stay long-term.

    I know of examples in Auckland where candidates have been prepared several years in advance to fill one of only 2, 3 or 4 available positions in NZ. Their fellowships have been targeted to what the department needed, and then during the application process other individuals have ‘come out of the woodwork’.

    New Zealand’s geographical isolation surely means that some degree of ‘sponsoring’, or shoulder-tapping is desirable. Perhaps the problem then, is pretending that this isn’t happening and lulling people into a process which with they have very little chance of succeeding.

  4. Dylan:

    I have heard the argument that shoulder-tapping, as well as things such as “consensual” decision-making (as opposed to bringing things to a vote), are more efficient means of distributing resources (and maintaining harmony) in resource- and talent-poor small countries. Your examples provide good proof of the former criteria at work.

    But it also invites abuse and that is what I was thinking of when writing the post. Your last sentence alludes to this, which is where George D.’s point about transparency is worth noting–in most cases there is none or the real criteria for decision-making is buried under a cloud of official obfuscation or denial (for example, rejected NZ academic job candidates cannot access the specific criteria used to deny their application under supposed privacy clauses, which leaves them at the mercy of employer HR platitudes and generalised statements about “a large pool of very qualified candidates” etc. when in fact that is not the case).

    Unfortunately the ability of tax-payer funded organisations to play loose with OIA requests thwarts efforts to impose transparency standards in that realm, and private entities are even more averse and less accountable when it comes to full disclosure of their real decision-making processes (which, like in the public sector, are not to be confused with their formal decision-making procedures).

  5. From what I’ve observed in my industry (corporate law), when a specific candidate is in mind, firms don’t tend to even bother with a semblance of a process. Partnerships aren’t answerable to anyone (other than internally to fellow partners), and its just inefficient to go through the motions. So, instead, you just get a quiet coffee or drink, or even a phonecall out of the blue to your preferred candidate.

    In a smallish industry in a small country, everyone knows everyone, so it is relatively easy to do this sort of thing. I read somewhere that in Wellington professional circles, some ridiculous percentage of positions (approaching 50%) are filled using informal recruitment methods like that. Obviously this is not every position; plenty are advertised. All I’m saying is that in my field if you want to shoulder tap someone you don’t go through the rigmarole of a fake process.

    As for sinecures; I’ve found it interesting that a few old politicians and business sector grandees are getting their comeuppance for accepting cushy directorships. With companies falling apart, there are a lot of people who seem to have treated directorships of quite large companies as retirement jobs that required no effort that are now at risk of being prosecuted (including Doug Graham with a finance company).

  6. DaveW:

    I forgot to mention earlier that one thing I took away from that experience is that great watermen do not necessarily make good citizens. More than a few bullies and petty tyrants in that club, although I must say my overall experience at KKSLC was a good one.

  7. As I said before, I could be all wrong about this and am merely extrapolating widely from my own personal observations and experience.

    I suspect that most organisations regard shoulder-tapping as a mild form of arm-twisting. Often the presence of undesired wannabes for a vacant position will trigger a long-planned shoulder-tapping. It’s often portrayed as an overdue recognition/reward.

    It’s a mixed blessing for the victim, as refusal will offend. Often the tapper has selfish reasons. My perception is that clubs are often run by a couple of people who choose like-minded souls. I think many victims actually would prefer not to be shoulder-tapped, but couldn’t find a reasonable excuse.

    Academia might be quite different, as I encounter lots of highly-qualified people with over-inflated sense of their value. Examples of people promoted above their ability tend to self-correct over time.

    In many businesses, the practice has fallen by the wayside because higher management is often recruited externally, but it’s still amazing how many young relatives start with school holiday jobs and then obtain permanent lowly positions on graduation/leaving school.

  8. Sadly, this is spot on. Even allowing for the peculiarities of New Zealand society, Kiwis have an astonishing lack of ability to spot even dogs-bollock-obvious conflicts of interest. One can only assume that Transparency International asks the same captains of industry and VCs who do all the shoulder-tapping whether New Zild is corrupt, thereby ensuring a perpetually sparkling rating. The fundamental problem is that they don’t believe that what they are doing is wrong – by definition, their cronies ARE always their best candidates for “their” jobs.

    Specific advanced “transparent process” techniques I’ve personally encountered in New Zealand academia include: 1) the CV cut and paste (the more specific the better, so that no-one can come within cooee of the highly preselected candidate); 2) the jerrymander or CV cut (designed solely to exclude the best candidate you definitely don’t want); 3) the “tagged” appointment that turns out to be “untagged” when a friend with a totally different research specialisation lets it be known that s/he really really really wants a job (some law schools are really good at this one); 4) the very Zen practice of a short list of one (more commonly encountered in Wellington) and 5) “VC’s choice” or the wild card, which can mean the position isn’t filled, is filled with whoever catches the VC’s fancy on the day, or suddenly turns into rather more positions than advertised (but that has tended to involve a VC who’s also involved in rather more positions than advertised).

    Nothing like a meritocracy. Yeah right.

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