Fixing up the public service

The Labour party swooped into office on the wings of anger at golden handshakes and public service profligacy. First it focused on values, ethics and standards. Now it is down the harder stuff.

Three big management issues face it:

how to get public servants out of their “silos” and cooperating across portfolios on priority programmes;
how to lift capability;
how to get more order into the higgledy-piggledy halfway-house agencies known as Crown entities.
The “silos” issue has bothered politicians since Jim Bolger in 1990 revived the web of interdepartmental officials committees that frayed during the revolutionary 1980s.

In 1998 Jenny Shipley created “teams” of ministers as a way of getting action on a wide front of difficult initiatives – among them, roads, electricity reform, accident compensation reform, producer boards reform and tariff cuts, not to mention health, education and crime initiatives.

Operating in addition to the formal cabinet committees, the teams were to set priorities, get commitment from all ministers to them and concerted action across departments without the usual turf battles.

Helen Clark eschewed “teams” as unnecessary. But in recent months some ad hoc groupings have developed for specific tasks, particularly those which cross boundaries, as do some health and education issues. These are encouraging cross-portfolio official cooperation.

Energy Minister Pete Hodgson heads a ministerial group to plan action to meet the Kyoto target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. This is not a million miles away from the Shipley formula: Kyoto is a very high priority of the Clark government and it requires input from a range of departments and a concerted push from ministers to inject urgency into officials who might otherwise see it as (mainly) other departments’ business.

Another group of ministers and departments bothers about the “digital divide” between those who can and those who can’t hack it in the internet-driven world. Most people are on the wrong side of the divide and the government wants to more of them on the right side, where there are higher wages and improved national economic competitiveness.

Butting on to this is an ambitious programme of “e”-government, to cut time and expense of dealing with the government, increase small and medium-business access to opportunities to supply the government and increase “knowledge-sharing” among departments.

Then there is OGAP – not a visiting Martian but the committee tasked with “closing the gaps” between Maori and Pacific islanders. Clark calls this her government’s “flagship” programme. It needs fulltime contributions from officials in a wide range of departments and other agencies.

And there is simple greed. There is little lolly for new spending schemes, so ministers are being encouraged to identify low priorities they can trade off. State Services and Associate Finance Minister Trevor Mallard says that ministers who set priorities using teamwork approaches will be better placed in their dealings with finance ministers in the coming budget round.

Smaller agencies like the Youth Affairs Ministry are also being pushed to pool administrative functions to get economies of scale. And more use is being made of secondments of officials from one department to another.

Beyond the core public departments there are swarms of public servants walled off in Crown entities, a sprawling hotchpotch of operations ranging from straightforward implementers of government policy not greatly distinguishable from core departments to quasi-judicial bodies such as the Commerce Commission where ministerial involvement is inappropriate.

They have been shuffled into three categories, for which legislation later in the year – now in the consultation stage – will regularise governance and accountability arrangements. Some might be absorbed into departments, the original reasons for separation having evaporated with the state sector changes over the past 10 years.

But no amount of imaginative reshuffling of the officials pack will get far without “capacity”. There are far too few capable Maori in the public service and departments and other agencies poach off each other. The same goes for industrial relations experts. Mallard is keen to rectify that.

Overarching this is a bigger question: can departments do what ministers ask of them? Four pilot programmes are under way. Tony Hartevelt, who while at PriceWaterhouseCoopers helped rebuild several state agencies that got into crisis, is the first of four high-ranking new State Services Commission appointments to give chief executives more support.

None of this is as sexy as Christine Rankin’s swanky management style or as juicy as fat payouts to departing public servants. But it is far more important in the search for a more efficient and effective public service.