“… It’s just a fact of life
That no one cares to mention
She wasn’t good
But she had good intentions

– Lyle Lovett, ‘Good Intentions’

Opinion: Country songs have a way of summing things up universally and succinctly. Lyle Lovett was not singing about politicians but he might as well have been. Like all of us, politicians have a self-serving streak, and as former MP Richard Prebble said recently, incumbents are typically in the best job they will ever have. (Lived experience gives great insights.) Most politicians do have, or can remember having, good intentions.

In my old union days, Federation of Labour boss Jim Knox delighted in recalling during meetings with Labour Ministers that his father had warned him: “Son, if you ever find a good politician, shoot him before he goes bad.” In one such meeting I was at, David Lange quipped: “Thank God it’s too late for us!”.

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Like so many recently, my own mind has locked on to the idea that the current government is firmly in Lovett country. Translation from aim to reality has been such that in a business the ministers as a group would have been placed on “performance management”. Electorally they probably have been. And they do have to be judged as a cohort – they come and go as a team.

In a business where this occurs those doing the performance management have to have regard not just to the personal failings of the incumbents but also to such matters as:

* The availability of alternative and clearly better candidates for the roles;

* Any failings in the support or delivery structures of personnel and funding which may have limited performance; and

* Whether the aims on which performance is being judged were themselves reasonable in the circumstances.

I am not one of those who thinks political matters are automatically handled in a business way with business aims. But there is much to learn, particularly in the executive function of government.

Though the fantasy is that this “public service” is totally neutral, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with its upper echelons will know there is a flavour and type that reaches and stays in that spot

I’m not going to mark the current ministers individually or collectively. But I do observe that one could not be confident across the various roles that competency would automatically be enhanced by swaps across the aisle in the current Parliament.

The alternative candidates would no doubt display strong self-assessment and rustle up a couple of decent, if closely related referees, but scepticism would be well justified. I recall that Jack Marshall fought the 1972 election on the slogan “Man for Man, The Strongest Team” and lost to Norman Kirk when voters did not share his view. Anyway for these purposes the point is that voters should be careful they are not reacting to current underperformance by over-rating the options. 

In any case my increasing perception is that failings in support or delivery structures of government are more significant to current underperformance than is widely appreciated. Under our system ministers inherit their support and delivery structures from preceding administrations (setting aside a few political courtiers). Though the fantasy is that this “public service” is totally neutral, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with its upper echelons will know there is a flavour and type that reaches and stays in that spot.

There is, if you like, a “culture” that prevails. It is not easy to push with radical urgency given that one of its key tenets is that they themselves know best. That is a problem for reforming politicians of any conviction. A much bigger problem is that of its nature the “public service” is administrative and managerial rather than innovative and customer responsive (unless you see the minister as the sole customer). Many of the skills for change are lacking, and even when the will is present the capability often lags. To me it always seems like many good people working in a dysfunctional structure.

This leaves the question of the aims themselves. In this sense judging a ministerial cohort is partly about whether the aims they set were consistent with the times and the resources. In business terms, Warren Buffett insightfully described the stock market as a voting machine in the short run and a weighing machine in the long run – real value being assessed in the latter run.

Assessment of a ministerial cohort should rest not just on popularity but on outcomes. Outcomes are about what you choose to do as well as how you pursue them. Very popular governments (popular for one reason at the beginning) have been judged harshly in retrospect because what they chose to do was not in concert with the times or the available resources. There is an element of this evident at present. That is firmly in Lovett country as I initially suggested.

But like investment, voting should be not about the past but the future. You cannot influence the past now with your October vote. The only thing that matters is the forward judgment about aims and capability. Our system with MMP actually complicates this, substituting some of the messiness of diverse reality for the simpler binary choice.

In the end you have to imagine a new cohort of ministers and how competent they are, imagine the aims they decide on as they are assembled and how they fit the times, and imagine the public service delivering them. 

Good intentions are not enough. But might I add, from my own perspective, bad intentions are even worse. (Wink, wink).

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