Bringing out the best in the bureaucracy

Heartless, inflexible, officious – three words that sum up many people’s experiences of dealing with big government-run departments.

Could there be a better way? Emeritus Professor Bob Gregory and PhD candidate Kristen Maynard from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government think so.

In a special issue of the University’s Policy Quarterly devoted to public service reforms, Maynard, of Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ruapani descent, and Gregory argue it is time to lay to rest the kind of soulless bureaucracy described in the late 19th century by German polymath Max Weber.

In its place, they are proposing a more humane bureaucracy, based on wairua, a Māori concept commonly associated with spirit and spirituality.

“While wairua is difficult to comprehend or define, it can be known through the senses, and through people’s experiences and practices and the meanings they ascribe to these,” they explain in their article, ‘Weber vs Wairua’.

“In this regard, Māori knowledgeable in wairua point to it being a phenomenon that permeates everyone and everything, has qualities similar to the source of all creation, seeks wholeness and balance, is an empowering, relational and connecting force, and is essential to life and wellbeing.”

Wairua contrasts with “tikanga Weber” and the new public management reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s, but resonates with increasing emphasis in the public service since the mid-1990s on public value, service, stewardship and citizenship, values that find stronger expression in the proposed new Public Service Act.

To exorcise Weber’s ghost, Maynard and Gregory suggest five ways New Zealand could move away from having an overly bureaucratic public service.

First, people-related skills and training must be recognised to be just as vital as technical skills and experience.

“Such skills are arguably even more important in the modern age of bureaucracy, where communication between people – even those sitting in close proximity to one another – is more often than not mediated by computer screens.”

Secondly, public bureaucracy has to have leaders and managers who can identify and help unleash each individual’s unique potential, skills and attributes, to “bring out the best in them”.

“To do this, state sector leaders and managers would need to be creative, authentic, intuitive, empathetic, consistently fair and able to empower and inspire others to be the same.

“This, in itself, would go some way to addressing recent concerns about workplace bullying and other toxic behaviour in New Zealand public service departments.”

Thirdly, a wairua-imbued bureaucracy would have fewer rules but more trust.

“Principles would be promoted to enable people to use their discretionary authority to do the right thing in each situation, enhancing mutual trust and reducing the likelihood of poor outcomes due to inflexible and/or outdated rules,” they say.

Fourthly, rather than presuming to know what is good for others, public servants would seek to understand the people they are serving and the realities of their lives.

“Policies and programmes would not be created in isolation from the citizens whom they are intended to affect, but would involve them in some meaningful way.”

Fifthly, a state system with an authentic wairua orientation would mean taking into account a wairua perspective on all matters. They suggest considering the whole person, including their wairua, would likely “enhance the outcomes for those involved”.

The authors are under no illusion this could be an easy or quick fix.

“Bureaucracy as we know it is not about to disappear any time soon, as the misplaced rhetoric surrounding many of the 1980s and 90s ‘reforms’ showed,” they say.

“But the proposed new Public Service Act expresses aspirations consistent with a wairua-based approach, so the opportunity exists, together with the government’s commitment to people’s wellbeing, to achieve real change.”

To do so, however, would require “a much greater openness to a new philosophical basis that authentically embraces a Māori world-view”.

Maynard’s PhD research aims to accelerate change by assisting the public service to understand what a wairua-based approach is, why it is important and what enables or constrains a broader incorporation of wairua and wairua-based approaches within the public service.

The hope is that public servants will become more aware of their own wairua and that of others and will then be more effective at what they do and how they interact with the people they are meant to serve.

“What we call ‘the economy’ should not be understood as a soulless abstraction, driven by a competitive marketplace, but as people living, working, playing and cooperating together.”

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners