This is an oped piece I wrote last week which was published in the Nelson Mail on Friday 31 January under the headline “It’s time to reassess and rebuild”. All constructive, forward-looking comments welcomed!
The role and functions of the state services have come under increased pressure in the last five years. The culture and performance of the wider state sector, in which I include all public services, has altered markedly under the current government.
The National-led government vowed to strip back the state sector, undertaking to get rid of the “back room” functionaries and place more people on the “front line”. It undertook to improve public service delivery with a programme called Better Public Services (now, inevitably reduced to “BPS”), with key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets to make sure the improvements were happening.
It was as if a new owner had taken over the company and decided to do the usual Stage 1 managerial reforms such as sacking the old guard simply because they were the old guard and giving people new goals and targets to meet so that they could demonstrate their efficiency.
Nelson felt it keenly for a small town, with 28 real jobs lost in IRD and 22 or more out of DoC, and that was just for starters. The Department of Labour and Housing New Zealand came next. But Nelson was not alone. Public services were stripped out of all smaller towns around New Zealand and centralised into Wellington.
But all of this was done without any real reflection on the role and purpose of the state sector. What does it do? What role does it perform in our democracy? What needs to be done differently? How might things be done better? And fundamentally, what is the difference between running a company and running a country?
Well, there is a substantial difference, actually.
There is no doubt that the public service is responsible for the implementation of the programme of the duly elected government of the day. That is a basic democratic expectation.
But the public service does a lot more than that. It also acts as a buffer between the exercise of the comprehensive executive power of the Cabinet, and the people. It is the repository of political neutrality and the upholder of our country’s constitutional integrity. It is the part of our democratic apparatus which provides the transparency and accountability which citizens in a sophisticated democracy require of their leaders and their leaders’ decisions. It is the place where innovative ideas can be tested and policy development can occur amongst some of the cleverest brains in the country.
It is also responsible for giving free and frank advice to Ministers in order that Ministers might fully understand the impact of their policies on the real people they purport to represent and whose votes put them there. In performing this function, it also protects Ministers, if only they would see it.
It is that tradition of free and frank advice which has been eroded the most under this government.
There are numerous examples, from Conservation to Health to Education and other departments and ministries besides, to back this up. It has got to the point where senior officials vet a report to a Minister before it even gets to him or her because the officials have had some clear indication or pressure from that Minister about the nature of the “advice” they require.
And so we have a DoC policy adviser resigning her position because her 32-page report on the environmental consequences of the proposed Ruataniwha dam in Hawke’s Bay gets reduced to a a single paragraph printed twice in the brief advice given up to Minister Nick Smith. He can say he didn’t even see the 32-page report because he didn’t. He didn’t see it, because senior officials knew that this was not the kind of free and frank advice the Minister wanted and so they didn’t give it to him.
This is a perversion of the public service.
The public service must advise the Minister on the best method and consequences of the implementation of a policy. The advice must be free and frank, without fear of retribution. That advice should be publicly available, and mostly it is, under the Official Information Act.
The ability of the public service to give free and frank advice on the basis of years of experience, research and policy development, is one of the things which contributes to New Zealand’s enviable reputation for a lack of corruption. The most recent Transparency International report on the Perception of Corruption last year, held New Zealand as first (the perceived cleanest) in the world, largely because of the effort and reputation of its public service. But they also expressed concern about the silencing of advice, inadequate or questionable appointment processes, rushed legislation which took away people’s rights such as the GCSB legislation, and poor contracting processes evidenced in the Auditor-General’s criticism of the Sky City deal.
If the government realised it was running a country and not a company, it might value more highly such things as due process, transparency, accountability and the best public service possible. It is time to take a more fundamental look at the role and functions of our state sector. Of course we should always strive for better public services. Every government should – they owe that to their people. But instead of performing a corporate restructuring exercise, they should reflect on what a capable and competent state sector brings to the lives of New Zealanders. It is time for such reflection and the rebuilding of our state sector.