NZ's public service has come a long way from the days of TV series Gliding On. Photo: Supplied

A smart, integrated public service has shown its agility during the Covid crisis but needs now to ensure it demonstrates political neutrality, writes Peter Dunne

While Covid-19 has dominated the headlines this year, and has understandably been the government’s major preoccupation, there have also been significant unrelated policy changes introduced that have almost slipped in under the radar.

Among the most important of these has been the passage of a new Public Service Act in July to replace the then groundbreaking State Sector Act passed back in 1988.

When he announced in 2018 the Government’s intention to replace the State Sector Act with new legislation more in tune with today’s public sector realities, State Services Minister Chris Hipkins spoke of the need for government departments to stop operating in their own silos and to work together to deliver more joined-up public services. He cited the Government’s Smart Start programme as an example of what it was seeking to achieve.

It is a good example. Smart Start is an integrated digital programme across several departments, from Internal Affairs with the registration of a child’s birth, to Health with early child health services, Social Development with the assistance available to new parents, and even Inland Revenue with the early issue of a tax number, all aimed at helping new parents ensure their children get the best start in life.

The only problem with Hipkins’ example was that it was not a product of his Government. It had been initiated about 18 months earlier during the term of the previous government, under the very legislation he was citing as no longer fit for purpose. Moreover, Smart Start had already received a prestigious international award for excellence in innovation and communication. I know this because, until the change of government in 2017, I was the Minister of Internal Affairs and had been responsible for Smart Start from its outset.

Although Smart Start had been introduced under the State Sector Act and the type of inter-departmental co-operation it initiated did not need a new Act, as Hipkins implied, there were many important principles behind the public sector reforms he foreshadowed.

These included a clear statement of the purpose, principles and values of an apolitical public service, and the embedding in legislation of the public service values of free and frank advice, and merit based appointments, as well as encouraging more flexibility in the way the public service could organise itself to respond to specific priorities.

While the 1988 reforms had shaken the old public service out of the “Gliding On” mentality that it had been pilloried for over the years, challenges still remained. For example, while few have mourned the end of the old promotion system where seniority tended to outweigh competence, the post-1988 state sector never quite seemed able to grapple with the implications of what a more competitive, merit based appointments system meant for the retention of experience and institutional knowledge. Too often, the appointment of more nimble and qualified personnel, frequently from outside the public sector, while absolutely justified on grounds of merit and competence, had led to a loss of internal memory and a consequent mass reinvention of the wheel that could otherwise have been avoided.

This led to a substantially increased requirement for consultants, often the very people who had been displaced, so slowing the sense of innovation, agility and drive that ministers were seeking, as well as dramatically increasing service delivery costs. With a fairly frequent turnover of ministers (the majority of ministers do not serve much more than a term and frequently far less than that in any given portfolio) policy debates often took place in a historical vacuum, meaning that frequently the pitfalls of an apparently attractive policy proposal came to light only after it had been implemented. (Indeed, as a long-serving minister, I became increasingly amazed at how frequently I was the one, not my officials, providing the institutional knowledge on why certain things had happened the way they did!)

Political neutrality has long been at the heart of the New Zealand public service, and has been properly upheld as one of its core values. However, it has often been more difficult to ensure in practice, especially in the environment engendered by the State Sector Act, which placed such a strong emphasis on the role of the departmental chief executive, and the relationship between the chief executive and the minister. The purchase agreement between the two for specified departmental outputs had more focused the nature of departmental actions on the Government’s specific policy objectives than was the case previously, which was good, but it also created structural risks to political neutrality.

A tighter, contractual relationship between Ministers and their chief executives inevitably meant chief executives, and by extension their departments, became more inextricably involved in both the development of policy and the way in which it was implemented subsequently. This was a marked change from the previous system where the role of the public service had been much more passive – carrying out the government’s wishes as expected, and being largely expected to just get on with the job, rather than be too innovative.

An important sidebar to this, which the new legislation does recognise, is that individual public servants not only have, but are entitled to have, their own political opinions, like every other citizen. The assumption that public servants should be political eunuchs loyally serving the government of the day without ever having, or daring to have, a political view of their own is untenable and impractical. The balance that needs to be struck, which the new legislation seeks to do, is to ensure the right to individual opinions and political involvement does not get in the way of public servants carrying out their responsibilities to implement the policies of the government of the day to the best of their abilities.

The overall social and economic climate today demands flexibility and collaboration as the norm, not the desirable exception. The march of technology, access to information, and speed of communications mean previously complex problems can not only be identified, but managed and resolved, across several boundaries, swiftly and decisively, with compliance and efficacy monitored from the outset. Aspects of the Covid-19 response have demonstrated this clearly, in a way that was potentially unimaginable 20 years ago. Integrated, whole of government responses or proactive interventions – whether it be on matters as grave as Covid-19, or the ongoing challenge of climate change, or future policy initiatives in a particular field, or just far more localised situations – are now commonplace, and what we expect.

However, no matter how well intended or whatever safeguards are put in place, systems will still prove inadequate to thwart failures of judgment by individuals. The irritation caused by the Labour Party’s filming of the Prime Minister’s visit to a laboratory processing Covid19 tests is such an example. The clumsy attempt to include footage of the Director-General of Health and other staff in what was clearly intended to be used in some way to support Labour’s election campaign was unwise and ill-considered, but hardly a federal offence, especially since it has now been called out and the item removed from social media. Of slightly more concern, though, is the Director-General’s seemingly indifferent response to the incident, reportedly saying that staff had been “thrilled” to meet the Prime Minister. That shows a concerning level of contextual naivety, especially given the close working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Director-General that Covid19 has required, and the looming election campaign where Covid19 will be still be the major factor. Public servants being politically neutral, and being seen to be so, is now more important than ever.

To protect the integrity and credibility of his new legislation, it would be prudent for State Services Minister Hipkins to be publicly taking the lead in demanding the political neutrality of the public service, and calling out those who would threaten it, even if they are his friends.

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