Under-resource the public service at your peril

We have, it seems, an oversupply of corner-cutting developers, architects, engineers and builders and inattentive building inspectors policing inadequate law.

Low-life has invaded the high-rise. Town houses and apartment blocks have leaked stains on our national honour.

My favourite story is actually of a non-leak: an apartment block’s fire sprinklers not connected to water, allegedly ticked off by the Fire Service. Whom can you trust?

A society with developers and their ilk in its midst needs top-drawer regulations and regulators. That is public servants’ role, as advisers to ministers. Enter State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham, the man in charge of quality in the public service.

Wintringham — his involuntary titillating part in the Christine Rankin show last year aside — is the archetypal discreet bureaucrat. But hidden in there is a Harley Davidson restorer and I am told to expect forthright comment in his annual report, due in Parliament this week.

Largely unnoticed by outsiders, Wintringham is wreaking significant change.

The state sector reforms in 1988 imported private sector management techniques to lift efficiency. Administrators were turned into managers, much more focused, financially competent and accountable, a model for other bureaucracies.

Good — but not enough. “The priority now,” Wintringham said in his post-election briefing to State Services Minister Trevor Mallard, “is to work differently to meet the needs of citizens and business better”.

Wintringham’s predecessor, Don Hunn, in a speech marking his installation as a Institute of Public Administration fellow last week, said ministers began to realise in the mid-1990s that more than management skills were needed to run a top department well. Some technical knowledge of the portfolio was also crucial.

To get that Wintringham has three times recently recruited from Australia. An example: the paradoxically named Barry Carbon heads the Ministry for the Environment.

The need goes deeper. “An unlooked-for consequence of the 1988 changes has been a tendency to treat staff skills as a commodity — to be purchased as and when required,” Wintringham said in his post-election briefing.

His unstated corollary: commodity staff produce commodity results, the antithesis of quality.

Stir in relentless Beehive pressure for more from less. National cheese-pared staff. Labour has piled on work, some of it in new territory. Governments generally have become more ambitious social engineers.

Moreover, programmes and processes often live on regardless of whether they contribute towards an important objective. To stop this, Wintringham’s briefing urged constant evaluation and reprioritisation. He also urged Crown entity reform, stalled by Helen Clark in 2000.

The result of the Beehive pressures, judging by this year’s post-election briefings — even discounted for special pleading — is that many departments are overstretched, underpaid, understaffed and under-resourced. This is serious when it comes to the inadequacies in biosecurity, critical for a country mightily dependent on nature.

Government demands go further. Hunn said current public servants had told him there is now pressure on public servants to be “missionaries”, not the “mercenaries” of the classically neutral service — to defend policy, not just explain it.

Spool back to the election campaign. Science Minister Pete Hodgson whistled up Carbon and officials from the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to a press briefing to counter Nicky Hager’s accusations about GM corn. Hodgson and Wintringham were present throughout.

Carbon and Co stuck strictly to factual information — they were propriety personified. But to be so paraded on a matter of high controversy which affected the election outcome was a bad look. Would Hodgson have done that if the accusation had been against National? No. Wintringham, who makes much of ethics and standards in his reports, was on marshy ground.

But so are we all, if public servants can’t or don’t write first-class regulations and police them meticulously, as leaky-home owners now know. I am told Mallard is soon to move on Wintringham’s urgings. The acid test will be how much.