Monday, 29 January 2018

Imagining an optimal Public Service

A Question

I'd like to propose a question to explore your thoughts, freed of current restraints, of what an ideal, optimised and valuable public service making a highly desirable contribution might look like:
Imagine a situation in twenty years where the public service is genuinely designing / delivering what the nation and its people need, for both the short and long term.
What models, motivations and measures would need to be in place to encourage that situation to come about and to continue, and how should these be applied?


It’s often been said that the public service (in almost every country) is bureaucratic, risk adverse, ineffective and inefficient.
Bypassing arguments of the validity of that assertion, this leads to the question – “What would work better?”
What models, motivations and measures would lead to the public service operating at the ideal level – in quality of policy design and implementation, and value it adds to the public it ostensibly serves?
Questions of this type are usually greeted by the refrain of “can’t be done in our current environment”. So think outside the current environment. Imagine an ideal future twenty years hence. Imagine that all the obstacles to improvement have been overcome, and the best models, motivations and measures can be implemented, and have been implemented, without major obstacle. What would those models, motivations and measures be?

Additional considerations

Some extra things to consider in exploring the question:
             Time scale of the question
This question is positioned in to the future in an attempt to get away from thinking of current limitations. So imagine that all your bugbears with the public service have been, or can be, resolved. How do we motivate good behaviour to happen from all quarters?

             Current public service motivations
The public service (that is, the government agency sector) at times shows signs of being motivated primarily by risk aversion, politically-driven decision-making, and a determined focus on one’s own silo. Circumstantial evidence points to the possibility that this appears to be more pronounced at higher levels – those who set the direction and tone of the rest of the organisations they’re in. So what motivations and measures would help to address this?

             Motivations for genuine improvement
If a government agency's core objectives and motivations do not properly align with the true needs of the nation, its people or its interests, what motivations can there be to improve this at all levels?

             The profit-based sector and objective measures of value
The objective measure of value in the commercial sector (ie: profit) is not available to the public sector for many good reasons. The question above is therefore focused on identifying (or creating) similarly universal motivating factors and potential objective measures of value which might be applied in the government sector. The profit measure, for better or for worse, is a relatively simple measure that can be applied to any part of an organisation to ensure an initiative has a positive effect on the organisation and its purpose. The public sector needs something that can be similarly universal and objective (but preferably one which does not encourage psychopathic behaviour as the profit motive appears to do at times).

             Examples to learn from
What do other countries better run than our own do to motivate their public service? What do they have in place that drives their public service to create towards outcomes?

             Improving the top over time by improving the base over time
The comment has been made that before we can have a well-functioning public service we first would need a well-functioning elected government. If that’s is true, what would need to happen to create that improvement.
For example (and exclusively as an example), would something such as teaching critical thinking in schools for twenty years help gradually to improve the quality of political leaders we select?). Many democracies have demonstrated that their populations can be guided to make problematic choices. How closely coupled are these questions – of public service motivations and quality of elected officials?

             An international question
I would hope that this question, and its challenges, is relevant to the public service structure in many countries at many levels. This is a struggle not just for the Australian Public Service or that of any government. It’s a struggle for every organisation I’ve worked with that doesn’t have an objective measure of value. Charities appear to have this issue too, although to a less extent.

             Separating the “what” from the “how”
Some have said, in effect, that the solution is to privatise everything. In this particular case, this would miss the point of the question. No matter who does the work, models, motivations and measures still need to be in place to drive that privatised / in-house / other approach. Privatisation, in this case, would be a “how”. The question above relates to the drives of the “why” and “what”.

Chris Malcher

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The impacts of Noise and Distraction in the Workplace

Open-Plan Offices and other Problems

With the increasing prevalence of open-plan offices, it’s worth having a look at the evidence of the impact such environments have the on people in them.
The research in this area is relevant not just for the workplace, but also for education environments of all forms, and any other place where people need to concentrate and use their brains.

The research is unambiguous. Noisy environments:
  • increase distraction
  • increase stress
  • reduce workplace harmony
  • lower job satisfaction
  • reduce functioning memory, and
  • can ultimately negatively impact people’s health.

These effects are generally intensified for introverts (because constantly having people around is draining), and for people whose neurological makeup is on the end of the bell curve better suited to constantly monitoring their environment (e.g.: adhd).
Adding to the situation, the evidence supporting positive effects of open-plan offices doesn’t appear to be as prolific as one might hope. While it can be good to be near the people you need to work with, and that appears to work well in short bursts, open plan offices and other noisy work environments don’t typically happen in short bursts.

The evidence:
The key points in the evidence can be best made by letting the publications speak for themselves through their abstracts (Full reference details are at the end of this page).
So, over to the extracts from abstracts …

Open-Plan Offices (general)

Noise and distraction in open-plan offices.
  • [in open-plan offices] employees face a multitude of problems such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, over-stimulation and low job satisfaction when working in an open plan work environment.
    Managers need to have a better understanding of open plan work environments before embracing such workplace designs. A multidisciplinary approach is recommended when decisions are being made in relation to which type of environment is better suited to the requirements of their employees as this has an impact on workforce productivity and job satisfaction.
    Source: “Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments?: A review” (Oommen et al, 2009)
  • [when a studied group of professional office workers with private rooms moved to open plan offices] … negative effects of acoustic environment increased significantly, including increased distraction, reduced privacy, increased concentration difficulties and increased use of coping strategies. Self-rated loss of work performance because of noise doubled. Cognitively demanding work and phone conversations were most distracted by noise. The benefits that are often associated with open-plan offices did not appear: cooperation became less pleasant and direct and information flow did not change.  … Professional workers’ … work tasks mainly required individual efforts, and interaction between other workers was not of primary concern, although necessary. The results suggest that the open-plan office is not recommended for professional workers.
    Source: “Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation” (Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al, 2009)

Learning and cognition

Noise and distraction's effects on learning and cognition.
  • The results [of this study] showed that both road traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech impaired recall of the text. Retrieval in noise from semantic memory was also impaired. Attention was impaired by both noise sources, but attention did not mediate the noise effects on episodic memory.
    Source: “The effects of road traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech on different memory systems” (Hygge et al, 2003).
  • [In an experimental] reading comprehension task, cued recall and recognition were more impaired by meaningful irrelevant speech than by road traffic noise. Contrary to predictions, there was no interaction between noise and age group, indicating that the obtained noise effects were not related to the capacity to perform the task.
    Source: “Strength of Noise Effects on Memory as a Function of Noise Source and Age” (Boman et al, 2005)
  • Merely overhearing a halfalogue [half a phone call conversation] results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks designed to reflect the attentional demands of daily activities. Source: “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting” (Emberson et al, 2010)

Physiological effects

Noise and distraction's psychological effects.
  • [In noisy environments there is] physiological evidence of increased stress related to noise sensitivity and noise exposure during work.
    Source: “Low frequency noise enhances cortisol among noise sensitive subjects during work performance”, (Persson-Waye et al, 2001)

Different effects for different groups

Noise and distraction's effects on specific groups.
  • Satisfaction and performance [are] reduced for employees with poor stimulus screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to produce employees’ negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a significant determinant of employees’ reactions to the open-plan workplace.
    Source: “Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices” (Maher & von Hippel, 2005).
  • Employees [studied in open plan offices] exhibited the lowest performance and satisfaction when their jobs were low in complexity, their screening skills were weak, and they worked in dense areas, areas with few enclosures, or close to other employees.
    Source: “Physical Environments and Employee Reactions: Effects of Stimulus-Screening Skills and Job Complexity” (Oldham et al, 1991)

Supplementary Notes

Some extra useful information. While not robust research, interesting nevertheless.


Coping Tools

  • My coping suggestion: Buy some noise-cancelling headphones. The expensive ones are generally worth it. Even a $500 pair of noise-cancelling headphones will give return on investment within about a year if you assume that each hour of improved concentration gives you one dollar of return, and you use them two hours a day. I bought some cheap ones, they didn't help much, then I bought the best I could find and haven't looked back (I bought Bose QuietComfort 35's - full ear covering with good noise-cancelling software).
    The headphones won't stop all sound, and won't stop visual distraction, but they are a great way to help reduce the distractibility of a noisy environment.


  • Emberson, L. L.; Lupyan, G.; Goldstein, M. H.; & Spivey, M. J. (2010), “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting.”, Psychological Science. URL: From:
  • Hygge, Staffan; Boman, Eva; Enmarker, Ingela (2003) “The effects of road traffic noise and meaningful irrelevant speech on different memory systems”, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Volume 44, Issue 1, February 2003, Pages 13–21. URL:
  • Kaarlela-Tuomaala, A; Helenius, R; Keskinen, E; Hongisto, V (2009) “Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation”, 21 Oct 2009. Published online. URL:
  • Oldham, Greg; Kulik, Carol; Stepina, Lee (1991) “Physical Environments and Employee Reactions: Effects of Stimulus-Screening Skills and Job Complexity”, Academy of Management Journal (ACAD MANAGE), 1st Dec 1991 vol. 34 no. 4 929-938. URL:
  • Persson-Waye, Kerstin; Bengtsson, Johanna; Rylander, Ragnar; Hucklebridge, Frank; Evans, Phil; Clow, Angela Clow (2002) “Low frequency noise enhances cortisol among noise sensitive subjects during work performance”, Life Sciences, Volume 70, Issue 7, 4 January 2002, Pages 745-758. URL:

Chris Malcher

Sunday, 26 February 2017

A speech befitting the current US President

A satirically proposed speech befitting the current President of the United States of America.
The man who Made His Country Great Again
I know it’s not politically correct to say, but Adolf Hitler was a Great Man who Made Germany Great Again, and he could have kept doing it if all those people in the European establishment hadn’t stopped him.
He made Germany strong! He made their economy the envy of Europe for a while! He built great roads all around the country! He made the trains run on time!
He was elected fair and square standing up for the little guy, and it was only because of voter fraud and fake news that people said he only had a small vote. He was a great man with great big hands!
When the biased media, that enemy of the people, attacked him he pulled them all in to line in a flash. They sure never criticised him again.
He did what he said he’d do. He brought in his rich friends who thought like he did to knock over the establishment people in the capital and fixed up the mess made by those failures who said they wanted strong institutions instead of strong men.
He fixed the business environment to get rid of all those strangling regulations, those anti-progress greenies and those taxes on the businesses so they could be free to do whatever was needed to make the country great again.
He didn’t have to worry about being politically correct. He could grab a woman when he wanted, he could call any race what it was. He saw it how it was and he said it how it was.
He dealt with all the freaks, losers and liars who said he was wrong and locked them all up. You’ve got to admire that in a man.
And when those activist judges tried to stop him making his country great, he got rid of them, just like a great man should.
Some unbelievers whine and complain that he killed lots of people and started a war, but they don’t know the real man. He did what was right for his country, and if we can get rid of the politically correct set and teach history with our own great alternative facts, our kids won’t be told all the lies about the bad things Hitler did, they’d be made to believe what a great man The Furher really was, and how we should follow his lead in every way.

Note: If you take this in any way seriously, I'd like to suggest a bit of education in evidence-based logical reasoning.

Chris Malcher

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Most Important Events in Human History

It seems to me that the events that were truly critical for humanity’s history are not the ones we were taught about in school, or even in university. They’re not wars, they’re not the rise or fall of nations, and they’re not actions of “great men”. They’re bigger than that.
As an example, consider wars. Which war of more than 500 years ago continues to have major ramifications on human development now? I don’t mean political development, I mean the development of the human species. I go through the list and can think of none. While some have shifted boarders or even changed nationalities, none have shifted the development of humanity itself.
This same measure of long-lasting effect can be used to determine (and/or predict) the importance of many other historical events as well.

So, my list of the most important events in human history:

First, the prerequisites to “us”;
a.   The big bang
b.   The formation of Earth
c.   Life on Earth
d.   The rise of homo sapiens

The top ten human actions;
1.   The development of agriculture (more info)
(had many consequences beyond food stability)
2.   The creation of religion
(good or bad, it had a major effect. See the timeline of religion. There is little clear writing on the historical significance of religion on general)
4.   The birth of philosophical enquiry
5.   The concept of the rule of law (also see here)
(indicated in the the Magna Carta)
6.   The printing press
(information could now be shared like never before, and languages stabilised)
7.   The idea of evidence and the scientific method.
(The Enlightenment (more information here))
8.   The industrial revolution
(electricity, the internal combustion engine, efficient mass transport (railways, cars and aircraft) factory production etc.)
9.   The sixth great mass extinction
(The Holocene extinction / Anthropocene extinction – We’ll be feeling the effects of this one for millennia to come)
10.        The information revolution
(the age of computers)

And, in the future;
11.        The age of extreme weather
(as a result of climate change)
12.        The rise of genetically engineered beings
13.        The rise of sapient machines
(The technological singularity - when this happens, we'll find ourselves in utopia or hell. It's hard to predict which).

Chris Malcher