A humble underscore had an oversized impact on a state sector-led workshop – and provided a hint of the task ahead of the Government as it tries to improve collaboration between agencies, Sam Sachdeva writes.

A workshop for the victims of crime might seem an unlikely place to learn about the significance of a typographical symbol – but there’s no question mark about its importance in this case.

Run by the Ministry of Justice and the Government’s chief victims advisor Kim McGregor, the early March event was attended by members of the judiciary, Corrections and the Parole Board, as well as victims and advocates.

There was one organisation conspicuously absent, however – the Ministry of Health.

Graeme Moyle, a victims advocate whose brother was killed 12 years ago by a patient released from a mental health unit, expressed outrage at the no-show.

“The rights of this group of victims will never improve so long as this culture of contempt and ignorance exists within the Ministry of Health.”

Justice officials insisted their health counterparts had been invited, but the Ministry of Health said it had never received an invitation.

In the end, the Ministry of Justice took the blame for the mix-up, with a spokeswoman saying: “Unfortunately, we have discovered that the invitation was sent to the incorrect email address.”

What went wrong? A misspelled word, or an invite to the wrong person?

In fact, the error is believed to be far more simple – and arguably illuminating.

Shaking up the state sector

Where the Ministry of Justice’s email formatting places a full stop between the user’s first and last names, the Ministry of Health deploys an underscore.

The justice official tasked with dispatching the invites seems to have assumed the health ministry’s email style mirrored their own, sending an email which disappeared into the void.

This raises a number of fairly obvious questions.

Why didn’t the email bounce back? Shouldn’t the Ministry of Justice have found it odd that no health officials wanted to show up to the hui, or the other side that they hadn’t been invited, at a time when the laws around insanity pleas are set for a shake-up?

Solving those sorts of issues is part of the reason for the Government’s proposed reforms of the State Sector Act and Public Finance Act, described by some as the most significant shake-up to the public sector in the last 30 years.

Launching the consultation process last September, State Services Minister Chris Hipkins said government departments had to “come out of our silos” and take collective responsibility on shared problems.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has talked of a one-stop shop for public services, with “life events” – such as the birth of a child or moving house – dealt with through a single point of contact within the government apparatus.

There will be a small taste of that approach in this year’s Wellbeing Budget, with a set of five priorities which all ministers are required to work towards.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins wants to bring government departments out of their silos – but many others have tried in the past without success. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The email snafu serves as a small but emblematic example of why those changes are needed, but also the task that lies ahead for the Government.

Having a single email format for all government agencies would seem a no-brainer.

It may be easier said than done when you’re talking about nearly 50,000 public servants, but it shouldn’t be impossible.

That the lack of a common standard for such a minor detail could snowball into a public incident, without any communication to prevent it, shows the amount of effort that will be needed on improving collaboration.

Of course, Hipkins is not the first minister to want to break down the barriers between government agencies.

Bill English’s social investment approach relied in part on government departments, NGOs and other experts being able to access the valuable stores of data the public service holds.

“Too often that information sits in silos within departments. It is often difficult and sometimes impossible to access,” English said in a 2016 speech.

Before him, Helen Clark’s Labour government tried to tackle the silo mentality, with then-State Services Minister Trevor Mallard overseeing its 2001 “review of the centre” which recommended greater integration of public services.

If history is any guide, meaningful reform may be harder than it appears – and that a single character in an email address can have such a disruptive effect underscores the task ahead for Hipkins.

“Fragmentation makes coordinated service delivery more complicated, adds to the costs of doing business, and blurs accountability for some issues,” the review said.

Neither Labour nor National seem to have made conclusive progress over the years, and even the Government’s small changes to date seem to cut across some of the goals.

The review of the centre recommended a reduction in the number of state sector organisations, saying the proliferation at the time led to inter-agency “turf battles” and a dilution of talent across the sector.

Yet the number of agencies is starting to rise again, with the creation of the Pike River Recovery Agency and the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development, as well as hints of a possible break-up of the “super-ministry” MBIE.

Taken in isolation, those decisions may make sense, but they take on added complexity in the context of Hipkins’ desire for a more “fleet-footed” public service.

Of course, the Government’s mooted reforms – including the creation of “executive boards” of chief executives jointly accountable for government priorities, as well as joint ventures of staff from different agencies – may well bear fruit.

But if history is any guide, meaningful reform may be harder than it appears – and that a single character in an email address can have such a disruptive effect underscores the task ahead for Hipkins.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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