Analysis: The Government is pushing ahead with what it says will be the most significant public sector reforms in 30 years – but will it succeed where others have tried and failed? Sam Sachdeva reports.

As far as anecdotes of dealing with government departments go, State Services Minister Chris Hipkins got off lightly.

As Hipkins waited for audience questions in a Victoria University of Wellington lecture theatre, Professor Girol Karacaoglu, the head of the university’s School of Government, offered up his own recent experience of inter-agency collaboration.

“Two weeks ago we had our first grandchild on a Friday night: two working days later, her IRD tax form was delivered to her home address by the New Zealand postal service, so that’s what we call effectiveness and efficiency.”

It is New Zealanders’ less positive experiences – of being passed from agency to agency, of feeling like ministries are battling each other rather than working together for Kiwis – which the Government’s’ state sector reforms are designed to address.

Hipkins confirmed that the State Sector Act would be repealed and replaced with the Public Service Act, with the proposed changes he outlined at the start of the Government’s consultation process remaining largely intact.

Perhaps most significant are the plans to allow “executive boards” of agency and department heads to be created for joint planning, budgeting and policy work on cross-cutting issues, as well as expanding the use of joint ventures where staff and assets can be shared.

While joint ventures do exist under the current regime, Hipkins said currently it was one department or agency that would end up hosting the work, controlling the budget, and being held accountable for successes or failures – something the Government wanted to change.

He mentioned the Government’s work on domestic and sexual violence, as well as on mental health, where the changes would provide “real teeth” to agencies’ work.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government’s proposed state sector reforms are “intuitive”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“If you look at mental health, that’s a really good example of where…the NGO sector is often a main service delivery point, and they’ll get frustrated if they’re having to deal with multiple different government agencies over different bits of the puzzle.

“If you can streamline that so…you’re dealing with one focal point for government rather than several different ones, that means for those NGOs they’re going to spend more time doing the business than securing the business.”

The Government also wants to streamline the process for people who move around the public sector, allowing them to keep their leave and other entitlements.

“If you’re working in one department or agency and you’re moving to another comparable job within the public service, it shouldn’t be a whole new employment relationship, which is what it is at the moment – you should be able to move.”

As Hipkins himself said, these changes are “intuitive stuff really” – many New Zealanders may expect that this level of integration is already in place.

“You can use your Facebook account to log in to just about every potential consumer service you might possibly want, yet every government department or agency requires you to have your individual account and password which nobody ever remembers…we’ve got a bit of catching up to do.”

“How can we get better regional coordination if each department or agency has a different view of what the Southland region actually is?”

There are other changes too: the State Services Commission will become the Public Service Commission, moving away from what Hipkins called “the cold, functional picture of machinery that name conjures up”, with an official acknowledgement of the public service’s “spirit of service”.

The new Public Service Act will include a standalone clause on the Treaty of Waitangi, while there will be greater alignment in how different agencies define regional boundaries; as Hipkins said: “How can we get better regional coordination if each department or agency has a different view of what the Southland region actually is?”

Can this time be different?

While it all seems sensible, whether it will be effective is another matter.

Opening his address, Hipkins spoke about graduating from Victoria in 2001 and the immense technological change which had taken place since then – the implication being that the public service had failed to keep up.

Yet in that very same year, State Services Minister Trevor Mallard was releasing his government’s “review of the centre”, along with its call for greater integration and less fragmentation of public services.

Add in Bill English’s social investment approach, and the idea of greater inter-agency collaboration is hardly new – so why does Hipkins think he will succeed where others have failed?

To his credit, the minister acknowledged the progress that had been made over the decades, moving from the “very atomised, compartmentalised system” of the 1980s and 1990s to an improved state sector under both Labour and National governments in the new millennium.

National’s Nick Smith offered little bipartisan support to the Government’s state sector reforms, saying they were “a recipe for a bloated bureaucracy”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Hipkins said he had spoken to the National Party about the Government’s work to make sure they were comfortable with their broad plans, saying: “I know that they’ve indicated that they are, because the challenges that we’re grappling with are the same challenges that they grappled with for nine years as well.”

Perhaps something was lost in translation: shortly after Hipkins’ speech, a press release came out from National’s state services spokesman Nick Smith decrying changes which he said would lead to a “more expensive, less accountable, and more centralised” state sector.

“These reforms repeat this Government’s errors with KiwiBuild and the polytechnic reform in believing that bigger government is better government,” Smith said.

Some mild support was offered, such as for allowing public servants to move more smoothly between agencies, but his ultimate conclusion that the reforms were “a recipe for a bloated bureaucracy” is hardly the bipartisan backing that Hipkins may have wanted for such major changes.

That will not stop the Government from pressing ahead – indeed, the success of its wellbeing approach to the Budget depends in large part on the improved collaboration the legislation is designed to allow.

But legislation – which will be introduced to Parliament later this year, and is likely to pass by mid-2020 – is no “silver bullet”, as Hipkins put it.

Inspiring the cultural change needed – both from ministers and their ministries – will be another issue entirely.

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

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