Hair shirts for Public Service

There are two essentials to staying in office a good long while, as Labour aims to do. One is to take ordinary folk with you. The other is to develop a strong policy capacity in the public service, to make sure you can ride out shocks and keep a strategic focus.

New governments, especially after a long spell out of office, reckon that policy is what they made in opposition. The Clark-Anderton government is particularly hot on this.

It is still making a high virtue of doing what it said it would before the election. And this has resonated with a public which voted in MMP in 1993 in despair at broken promises. Labour has had star ratings in the polls. So has Helen Clark.

Labour ministers have also claimed a mandate. Where Labour, the Alliance and Greens all supported a policy pre-election, this is undoubted, though, with a combined vote of 52%, only just true — and for those policies Labour alone advocated, it is demonstrably false, given Labour’s 38%.

Moreover, mandate fades. As a government wears on, it must re-earn mandate by presiding – or, more to the point, appearing to preside – over improving wellbeing.

It is in this phase that a canny government, bent on long office, must ensure a strong policy capacity beyond the Beehive. “Simon says” – sorry, “Helen says” – won’t substitute for sophisticated analysis and policy options that draw on all possible sources.

This government came into office suspicious of a public service it saw as dedicated to a policy direction, established after 1984, which it wanted to “correct”. The Treasury had, it worried, colonised much of the public service and those colonies would have to be neutralised or extirpated.

For example, Paul Carpinter was atop Commerce, Howard Fancy running education and, horror of horrors, Mark Prebble boss of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Other known free-marketeers in high positions included Alistair Bisley (ex-Foreign Affairs and Trade) in transport, the bejangled Christine Rankin in WINZ and the redoubtable Margaret Bazley in the Social Policy Ministry. And Treasury-think, in Labour’s demonology, is everywhere.

Answer: appoint advisers in the ministers’ office. So, for example, longtime Council of Trade Unions economist Peter Harris appeared in Finance Minister Michael Cullen’s office, Massey academic Chris Eichbaum in Social Services Minister Steve Maharey’s, former Nelson MP and environmentalist John Blincoe in Energy Minister Pete Hodgson’s.

These people are not intended as mere second opinions. They are intended to be influential in the advice stream.

Moreover, public servants have once again, as during the 1984-90 Labour government, been dropped from cabinet committee meetings. They are often not with ministers at meetings with outside delegations. They have been learning about decisions after the event, often with limited or no input. They are factotums, expected to run errands to order.

Rewind to the late 1980s and Clark’s tenure of the health portfolio. Departmental director-general George Salmond retired in frustration as many decisions were made inside Clark’s office, where Heather Simpson had Clark’s ear and the department did not.

Simpson is still Clark’s chief adviser. Self-effacing, affable, very intelligent, intensely loyal, this one-time academic economist is a central figure in the Clark-Anderton administration. She has Clark’s absolute trust. Her writ, which she exercises only in Clark’s service, runs wide.

Clark herself is very controlling, delegating only to ministers she fully trusts. This is a very centralised, top-down government. Senior public servants are having to earn its trust. One successful example is Carpinter’s proactive switch from “commerce” to “economic development”, telling his officials to get on message when Jim Anderton got naming rights to his department.

Mistrust is not good for morale. Equally bad has been the high-profile attacks by Clark on salaries and “waste”.

The message to a bright high-flyer is to acquire a monkish disposition and see labouring in the public’s interest as reward in itself – or head for an Australian consultancy.

Given that public servants are these days expected to carry the can when things go wrong, only the idealistic or the second-rate will be there a decade’s time. Capacity for first-class policy development will not be there. It barely is now.

For the moment this doesn’t matter to the government. But after some time if office it will need new ideas, especially in social policy. For that it will need world-class analysis which overworked mates in ministers’ offices will not be up to. There will be only the public service to turn to.