Reviving the spineless state sector

Reinserting our public service’s collective spine will take time, conscious effort and, crucially, legislative change directed at the problem, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Dr Simon Chapple

I’m just back from Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins’ presentation around the release of the consultation documentation for reform of the State Sector Act 1988. Hipkins made clear his commitment to an open, genuinely consultative process on reform: this is good. Everything, he said, is up for grabs. And, after 30 years of slowly deepening crisis in the New Zealand public service (although this crisis was not acknowledged by the Minister), we should be pleased the State Sector Act is being reviewed. Hipkins wants to see all government agencies report on the medium- to long-term issues in their area, halfway through each term of government. This is a sound idea.

But let’s talk about the issue of problem definition. Hipkins’ approach to framing the problems appears to be to channel ideas that Peter Hughes, now State Services Commissioner, employed in the early 2000s when he was running the Ministry of Social Development. Hipkins informed us that the 1988 Act was a success, but also that it didn’t solve a fundamental problem, that of “silos” between government agencies. Apparently, one aim of reform should be to move towards “joined-up government”, where we would run “one-stop shops” for citizens who will encounter “no wrong door” in engaging with government. More joined-up government is required because today’s problems are more complex than yesterday’s.

The notion that yesterday’s policy problem-solvers had it easier than we do may be simply today’s self-regard. Place yourself, for instance, in the shoes of a 1970s government: congratulations on your election, ministers, now please get us out from under an oil crisis, a productivity slowdown, burgeoning debt, growing welfare rolls and rising unemployment. You’ll also need to deal with increasing crime and participation in gangs, and resolve the growing generational conflict over social issues like apartheid, treatment of Māori and gay and lesbian rights. Not so simple back then.

The core problem in our policy process is not that “silos” keep us from joining the necessary dots. It’s a nexus of fundamental constitutional matters in regard to defining the balance of power between the executive and the public service, particularly the top of the public service.

New Zealand is a country without a written constitution. We have a unicameral parliament with limited checks and balances on executive power. Within our system, there has always been a tension between a public service and a government service. The former is an important constitutional check on executive power, the latter not so much.

A major problem is that under the State Sector Act balance in the state sector has shifted too much from serving the public to serving the government. Well-considered free and frank advice, a core part of public service, has been in freefall. Ministers of all stripes over the years have increasingly been told what they want to hear, and kept untroubled by specialist in-house scientific, technical and institutional knowledge.

The argument from the top has been that this withdrawal of public service has been necessary to keep one’s departmental powder dry and maintain lines of communication to and trust with the Minister. Slogans of dominant government service like “we want doers, not thinkers” and “just do it” have been embraced at the highest levels of the state sector, and this has percolated into the ranks.

Looking forward, a central challenge of state sector reform is to create a public service that has significant, well-informed, free and frank steel in its spine, and that acts effectively as one of several checks and balances on the executive. Reinserting our public service’s collective spine will take time, conscious effort and, crucially, legislative change directed at the problem. For reconstructive surgery to begin, we need to acknowledge that the removal of that spine through the State Sector Act is a core problem.

This article is in the latest fortnightly newsletter from Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (for which free subscriptions are available from igps@vuw.ac.nz with “Subscribe to newsletter, please” in the subject line).

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