What was it like to be a public servant when the PSA was first formed? Clem Goddard joined the public service as a cadet in 1915. He was an active member of the PSA from its earliest days. He retired 40 years later as Registrar of Pensions in Dunedin. His career spanned two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the uneasy post war years. He was one of thousands of dedicated public servants who kept the country running and shaped the foundation of today’s public service. In this edited extract from the PSA Journals he tells his story.
“When I was 16 I passed the Public Service Entrance examination. When offered a job in the service I accepted eagerly, believing it was something like being a member of parliament. Cadets were not snapped up in those days and I had to wait eight months for an appointment.
Life was very hard for cadets. No matter where they lived had to shift to Wellington and live in boarding houses. At 16 they were often totally inexperienced in life away from home; many had not been away even for a holiday as travel was very restricted then. It was a real struggle on what they were paid.
Up to a date fairly early in World War one, the public service was almost a preserve sacred to men. From time to time some women had entered the service but most of these married and left.
Girls are now so much part of our setup that we could hardly carry on the work without them. It must be hard for men who have come into the service of recent years to imagine a whole service without them. Their entry probably made the biggest difference in the service of all the changes I can remember.
When I started in the service, there were very few temporary clerks and none in our office. This soon changed. Early in my service there was a lot of bad feeling between temporaries and permanents. The temporary officers felt that they were the drudges of the service with no chance of becoming permanent. They had no hope of promotion while temporary and no security of tenure in their jobs. Yet they were often put into jobs that should have been above basic grade, but they were kept below basic grade salary.
Cash figured strongly in my term in the local office. All we had then as cash safeguard was an old Smith & Weston revolver which I handled with great care. I looked at the greasy, greenish looking bullets and imagined them tearing into my body — and I didn't like it. After carrying this to the bank for some years, Mr Fache[the boss] got it to start the races with at the departmental picnic. It wouldn't go off' and it turned out that the striking-pin had been missing for years.
Although we hear a lot about graft and influence in loose conversation, in all my forty years’ service, I do not know of one case of political influence helping any public servant; nor getting any beneficiary a greater benefit than that to which he was lawfully entitled. Bribery was also uncommon though we were offered small presents such as packets of cigarettes at Christmas which we refused.
When the flu pandemic arrived in Wellington in 1918 we began to be extremely busy. We had some widows applying for pension within hours of the death of the husband; and who could blame them? It was a hard job for a widow with children to exist in those days: they did not want any delay in whatever payment was due to them.
As public servants we were often transferred around the country at short notice. Soon after we arrived in Nelson in 1929, the depression became really bad. More and more men were out of work and for a longer and longer time. The people became frightened, then morose and then, in many cases, angry. They were angry with the political authorities chiefly. I don't know if they thought the government had caused the slump deliberately and if so why; or it they merely blamed the government for failing to prevent it.
Talk began to be heard of a ten per cent cut in public servants’ wages. We didn’t believe it possible — but it happened. Many businessmen were keen on a cut, saying the cost of government was too high and that it all came out of the taxpayers’ pockets. After the first cut they changed their opinions. They found that public servants were not only taking money out of their pockets but were also a big factor in putting it back.
Meanwhile the screws were put on the public servant more and more. The ban against working outside official duties was enforced rigidly and we were told that our wives must not earn either.
We found too, that the famed security of our jobs was not fact, as many public servants were retired early or dismissed. I heard of one man who offered to work for nothing until the depression passed, hoping to retain his position. But he had to go.
Working conditions were often poor in those days. The office quarters I had when I first went to Napier were so cramped that officers often had their fingers jammed when a chair was moved back a few inches. It was not unusual that the whole staff would still be in the office at nine pm because we were always understaffed. All the overtime was unpaid.
In 1940 when the Home Guard was being formed I was practically instructed by head office that every member of the staff was expected to join. I really objected to this. If joining was compulsory, and I think it should be, it should be for everyone — not just public servants. However, I joined and talked to those officers who did not. Eventually, all but one man had joined.
Peace came while we were at Invercargill. VE Day was considerably marred by the Government's insistence that we should not be joyful till they said, “Go.” It was the best part of three days before official sanction for celebrating was given. This was the worst example that I know of in NZ of a Government trying to interfere with the freedom of the people. Then VJ Day came and we tried to make a spontaneous celebration of it; but everyone was so darned sick of the whole show that we just felt a quiet relief and what noise we did make was purely ersatz. It was a relief, however, that we could begin picking up the bits. We have been picking them up ever since.”
Clem Goddard retired on 8 August 1955.
Listen to extracts from the autobiography of public servant Clem Goddard broadcast on Radio New Zealand's Sounds Historical programme.