A little bit of decentralisation

Regional and central networks are to be developed to improve coordination of government services, State Services Minister Trevor Mallard announced yesterday.

This is one of a range of initiatives, under a Review of the Centre programme, to get public and other state services working more effectively and responding better to the public. Mallard was reporting progress on the review’s recommendations from a year ago.

Initiatives also include “circuit-breaker” teams to tackle difficult problems. Three have been formed covering truancy, reducing domestic violence and settling skilled migrants.

Other priorities for the year ahead include Crown entity reforms, get all departments producing statements of intent, funding senior management development and beginning reviews of government sectors.

But an implementation advisory group headed by former Council of Trade Unions secretary Angela Foulkes says progress is too slow. “We believe there is a need for quick wins,” Foulkes said in a commentary on the official review.

Government services are delivered by 36 departments and more than 100 Crown entities. Crown entities employ 70 per cent of the government’s staff and spend half its money but are independent of direct ministerial control.

This fragmentation and “silo-isation” has posed problems for ministers, managers and the public — who sometimes find themselves dealing with several departments and Crown entities on a single issue. It has led to a lot of talk by ministers of “whole-of-government” action.

Also managers have focused on narrowly defined “outputs” — specific tasks. Ministers want the focus to be on outcomes for the public, evaluated over time to see if progress is being made.

Hence the desire for “networks” and “circuit breaker” teams.

The circuit-breaker teams aim to deal with “intractable” problems “at the place where the problem is being felt by citizens — out of Wellington. Teams are directly linked back to senior decision-makers in Wellington, however.

The issues are all in social policy, Mallard said. He said also that the social policy ministers were comfortable with the risks involved in devolving initiatives to teams outside Wellington. Several times in a press conference yesterday he emphasised that some of the initiatives would go wrong but ministers would back those taking them: “As long as we know about it, take the risk and we’ll back you if it doesn’t work.”

This is important because Prime Minister Helen Clark early in the life of her government was wary of devolution.

The “networks” are at two levels, regional and central.

Regional networks will link senior regional officers from the planning stage, “with budgetary authority to develop strategic priorities for a region and to develop and pursue joint action plans”.

They will be “mandated” by the cabinet, to ensure agencies get and stay committed to the network. Funding and rules will be flexible to encourage innovation and risk-taking.

This accent on regional coordination has taken on added importance in the light of the greater activity permitted local councils in the Local Government Bill due to be passed next week.

“Councils will soon be encouraged to work with each other and state sector agencies to identify their region’s social, economic, environmental and cultural priorities [and] develop a plan of action,” the cabinet paper on networks says.

There are also to be mandated central networks of agencies in three social sectors to tackle “specific strategically important issues, problems or opportunities on a national basis.”

Essentially, State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham said, central networks are alternatives to amalgamating departments and agencies into what the Review of the Centre called “federal departments”. Such restructuring would cause considerable disruption and neither ministers nor state managers are keen on that.

Legislation is being drafted, for introduction in late 2003, to tighten control over Crown entities.

This will assign Crown entities to four classes, as reported in yesterday’s Business Herald, and give ministers the power to issue general directives to each class. Standard governance arrangements will replace the current practice under which each Crown entity runs itself according to its own rules.

Wintringham’s mandate will be extended to issuing a code of conduct to align Crown entity staff with those in core departments.

There is also a first tentative step towards reducing the number of Crown entities. Ministers are being asked to “identify opportunities for consolidation of Crown entities”. The Review of the Centre report last year suggested many could be amalgamated (as have Industry New Zealand and Trade New Zealand) or reabsorbed into departments, as some have suggested for the troubled Building Industry Authority.

Mallard and Wintringham also put considerable emphasis yesterday on an executive leadership programme which has been developed and will be funded from next year. The aim is to build a cadre of capable managers capable of rising to chief executive level. Three of Wintringham’s recent chief executive appointments have been from Australia because he could not find suitable candidates here.

Mallard also emphasised the importance of e-government to bring agencies together, share information and maybe provide small one-stop shops in suburbs where now there is no government office or representation.