Peter Dunne argues that the Government’s sidelining of officials is a risky approach that could rebound painfully

An as yet quiet but nonetheless steady change is underway in the working relationship between ministers and senior public servants. Over the last few years, as the previous Government’s Better Public Services targets shaped the agenda, the relationship had been shifting to a more collaborative one where officials were working more actively and laterally across traditional departmental boundaries to achieve policy outcomes. 

Public servants were no longer the passive implementers of the Government’s wishes, but were becoming active partners in the process. Permanent inter-departmental officials’ committees had been established to service Cabinet committees, and officials had become regular participants in Cabinet committee discussions.

Occasionally, the process broke down and ministers were left exposed on key issues, as the methamphetamine contamination issue shows. (Although it has to be said that there is a great deal of rewriting of history currently taking place on that issue. The Ministry of Health had consistently advised Housing NZ that it was misusing the standards the ministry had developed, as Sir Peter Gluckman has confirmed, but was equally frequently being rebuffed by Housing NZ and its ministers who were determined to show a strong anti-methamphetamine stand, even if the facts did not quite justify it.)

However, the advent of the new Government has changed all those relationships, but it is not yet clear what the replacement practice will be. Already, the officials’ committees serving Cabinet committees have gone – they no longer attend Cabinet committee meetings. And the more general attendance of officials at Cabinet committees has been reduced too. The Better Public Services targets seems to be a thing of the past as well, although their ultimate fate is still uncertain.

This week’s revelation that there is no Cabinet paper-trail on the decision to stop future oil exploration is but the latest confirmation of this trend. Under this Government, a clear message is being sent that ministers make the decisions, not bureaucrats. (Indeed, one story doing the rounds in Wellington is of one very senior public servant being forced to wait outside for several hours while ministers determined issues relating to his organisation.)

In part, all this can be out down to a not-unexpected suspicion on the part of ministers of the public service’s commitment to their policy programmes. After all, they had been out of office for nearly a decade; few of them had ever served in a government previously, let alone been ministers; and none of them seriously expected to come to office last year. They were ill-prepared on so many fronts – Labour’s policies barely extended beyond the soundbite level, and the preparation of their personnel was inadequate, as the woeful performance of some ministers is now showing. 

So, almost understandably, the best way for new ministers to assert their authority, if not their control, was to take all decisions unto themselves. 

‘Laughable and irresponsible’

Many, of course, will say this is entirely appropriate – ministers, after all, not public servants, are the ones the public elects to govern, and to hold the warrants of responsibility. That is also true – but it cuts both ways. Ministers are obliged to accept ultimate responsibility for their own and their department’s decisions, even more so those for which they have sought no official advice, or declined to accept the advice presented. (The Shane Jones’ approach of musing that the officials should be changed to give him the advice he wants is as laughable as it is irresponsible and merely confirms his place as the Government’s Buffoon-in-Chief.)

How all this plays out over the balance of the term remains to be seen, but there are already clear signs of looming difficulties. The most obvious is KiwiBuild, where it now seems obvious that Labour’s essentially back-of-the-envelope policy is not supported by official advice and is unlikely to be achieved. Similar potential conflicts loom in the Justice policy area where the minister appears impervious to advice, and then there is the ongoing saga of the Provincial Growth Fund and its lax governance.

Hipkins doing better

A possible exception might be in the education portfolio where that minister’s massive consultation process – reminiscent of the Kirk Government’s 1974 Education Development Conference – could yield positive results, provided the Ministry of Education proves up to the task of policy development and the minister is strong enough to get it through Cabinet. 

Overall, the prospects do not look promising. Major policy change generally occurs best when ministers and officials work together to make it happen. The Government’s challenge now is how to achieve that without letting slip the facade it has been trying so hard to build, that it is in control and clearly knows what is best. While the path it is choosing means it alone will be responsible for its successes, it also means that it alone will also be responsible for its failures.

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