Ideasroom

Public sector pick carries disheartening message

Appointing a second non-New Zealander in succession to arguably our top public sector job reveals other deep problems in the NZ public service, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Dr Simon Chapple 

Dr Caralee McLiesh has been announced by the State Services Commission as the new Treasury Secretary.

She seems a strong appointment in terms of her academic credentials as an economist, experience in Treasury-like organisations internationally, and management expertise.

One wishes her well. She has a rather large task ahead of her in addressing cultural problems of a lack of analytical rigour and interest that a goodly number and range of informed people, publicly and privately, believe currently bedevil the Treasury.

However, appointing a second non-New Zealander in succession to arguably New Zealand’s top public sector job reveals other deep problems in the New Zealand public service.

McLiesh is an Australian who does not appear to have worked or lived in New Zealand for any length of time. The previous incumbent, Gabriel Makhlouf, not universally acknowledged as an overwhelming success, was British and had a modicum of local experience when he was appointed.

This decision reveals what SSC values and what it does not in making such an appointment.

One would imagine a deep knowledge of New Zealand’s economic, social and political history was a sine qua non for any public service chief executive, let alone the treasury secretary. Apparently not.

One would imagine a strong knowledge of New Zealand’s society, culture and institutions would be a similar necessary condition for appointment. Again, apparently not.

Appointing another non-New Zealander creates a further set of creeping problems. It sends very poor signals to ambitious, well-qualified locals within the public service.

One would imagine very strong and deep local networks in a wide variety of directions would be givens for any appointee. Again, apparently not.

I think this sort of knowledge matters to job performance of the Treasury Secretary, and I suspect it matters a lot. I also suspect lacking this knowledge contributed to Makhlouf’s mixed performance.

Of course, not having this background knowledge does not guarantee McLiesh will fail in her new job.

Again, I hope she will succeed. Nonetheless, at a minimum, she will be on an incredibly steep and long-duration learning curve on multiple fronts when she takes up her post. Hence her deep need to learn will stand in the way of effectively doing the job for a considerable part, or perhaps all, of her five-year appointment.

Of course, it is also likely her lack of skills in this area raises the risk she will not succeed, full stop.

What’s more, appointing a second non-New Zealander in succession represents a stunning internal and more long-term failure of the New Zealand public service, and SSC in particular, to grow sufficient numbers of intellectually and managerially competent skilled internal people.

Since such people are not grown overnight, the failure to have built a large cadre of such people is one for which many state service commissioners and departmental chief executives over the years bear the primary collective responsibility.

It is unclear whether the current Commissioner sees this lack of development of senior people with such skill sets as a problem. Judging by early SSC material on state sector reform, the answer is quite possibly not.

Appointing another non-New Zealander creates a further set of creeping problems. It sends very poor signals to ambitious, well-qualified locals within the public service.

It tells these people there is no clear career path to the top based on competence, experience and performance, since deep local institutional knowledge holds no essential value to those making appointments.

It also tells those making ongoing staff investment decisions in government agencies and the SSC that it is acceptable not to invest in developing people internally to step up to top jobs, since it is always perfectly possible to go offshore for the skill sets valued.

One hopes that in five years’ time, when McLiesh’s contract has run its course, the situation will be different across the public service.

One fears it will not.

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