Can the departments really do their job?

Where did the money to fight the honey bee mite come from? From something else the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) was going to do but now has put off till next budget year. Is this the way to protect our national livelihood?

There is no contingency fund for dangerous pests. A procedure which I have been assured does exist for fast release of new funds appears not to have been triggered. If the honey bee mite did not trigger it, one wonders what will.

This sort of fiscal narrowness greatly irked Simon Upton as National’s Minister of State Services. He argued that 15 years of penny-pinching undermined the state’s capacity to perform its “core” functions – such as maintaining civil order and good relations with other states, responding to natural disasters and protecting us from military attack, epidemics, bio-threats and the like. The 1980s budgeting model has relegated these core functions almost to a residual.

During the six Birch years at the Treasury extra money – of which there was a great deal – was sternly channelled to producing more health care, education and suchlike services for the state’s individual “customers” and “clients”. Very little of that extra went to those administering the services or developing policy. That, in the 1980s “public choice” parlance, was “provider capture” and so unproductive.

The core state was expected somehow to increase output per person and manage on less and less – a tall order in work that by nature is highly labour-intensive and does not produce widget-type outputs.

The result has been a growing concern, highlighted by Mr Upton, that MAF and some other “core” departments are fully able to do the policy development and risk management expected of them.

They have been squeezed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, after years of brilliant work with a small staff – for example, at the United Nations, in APEC and in developing the innovative free trade agreement with Singapore – is now about to close some small posts.

Consultants were one way round the constraints. But the new government saw cheap political hay – consultants are paid high rates; no one should get fat on the state – to be made blocking off this escape route. Result: some work is not getting done.

This has given rise to some interesting exchanges: a senior minister, for example, spluttering that a consultant “must” continue a project, but for less pay. The “must” presumably implied a duty to the country – but that duty has already been extracted in higher tax. This consultant said “no”. More rewarding work is to be had offshore.

Ministers have been suffering too, as Marian Hobbs’ embarrassment last week showed. The amiable Ms Hobbs is by insiders’ accounts an able minister but has been starved of adequate office support. A less exacting Prime Minister would have seen her right long before last Thursday’s assurance.

What can be done? Mr Upton had devised a solution tailor-made for a left government: build the State Services Commission (SSC) into an “ownership” agency, charged with keeping in good working order the enterprises the government “owns”. By this is meant ensuring departments, especially “core” departments, have the quantity and quality of staff and other resources to do what they are asked to do, especially protecting us from nasty diseases and agricultural pests.

Mr Upton wanted this beefed-up SSC to be a counterweight to the Treasury. The Treasury focuses primarily on “purchase” issues: it battles to stop the government spending one cent more than absolutely necessary to get something done. A beefed-up SSC could warn when this proper zeal threatens a department’s competence.

Some work has been done on this, including some pilot projects. But this will take time to come to fruition. The cabinet is busy getting cross-departmental work focused on new priorities, giving Crown entities new governance legislation, applying the Employment Relations Bill, carrying out some minor reorganisations and redeploying redundant staff elsewhere in the public service.

In the meantime you and I can thank our lucky stars we aren’t yet plagued with snakes.