It's tough keeping coordination going

Gerry Brownlee has had another go at the “bloated” public service. You can bet bureaucrats will be a target in the 2008 election. But has he got his aim right?

The Treasury has documented the expansion he complains of: more bums on seats requiring more offices; doubts about the return on taxpayers’ outlay.

Brownlee was in effect applying a simple equation that every official is an expense and crowds out a private sector generator of wealth.

It isn’t so simple. Nurses and doctors in the public health service improve the welfare of those who draw on their services as much as and probably more than a McDonalds hamburger-flipper or a BMW-driving tax lawyer. The same goes for police who stymy criminals and for scientists who generate ideas for a richer future.

But Brownlee was not suggesting we have too many nurses — his colleague Tony Ryall implies almost daily there are too few to meet demand. Brownlee and Ryall are targeting administrators. Fire some, Ryall says, and you could have more nurses — more beds instead of more desks.

But this, too, is not a straight-line equation. Hire more nurses and doctors for hospitals and you need at least some more administrators if nurses and doctors are not to be diverted from using their real skills into being substandard administrators or are not to be hampered by poor organisation. Not every added manager and administrator is a cost.

This begs a different question, which Ryall also highlights: that health services might be more efficiently and effectively delivered if private sector organisations did more of them. At the least, involving private sector delivery agencies could provide an efficiency benchmark for the public agencies.

But that skirts a hard issue Brownlee and his colleagues will have to come to terms with when next in office: a large amount of activity will still need to be done by public servants.

The issue is less how many of them there should be than how efficiently and effectively they do what they have been employed to do.

One of the industry gripes about the Commerce Commission’s assault this month on Vector, for example, is about the quality of the staff who generated the report on which Paula Rebstock acted.

It is a common business complaint: that public servants are ignorant or opinionated or deaf and blind and so their advice to ministers and subsequent legislation and regulation are — to be polite — suboptimal.

Most public servants are not any of those things. Especially at the higher levels, they try hard to understand the sector they are dealing with and to produce sensible, workable policy that enhances the public’s — and businesses’ — experiences.

But they have often to balance competing sectoral interests — not least, consumers’ interests against suppliers’ — and to accommodate ministers’ political interests. Moreover, the topics they handle are often highly complex and interlocking.

The outcomes affect business. It is in business’s interest to have high-quality brains and enough of them to do the thinking thoroughly and well. Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.

It is no answer to say: don’t pay them at all — just do less governing. Public expectations of governments expand as the public gets richer. That is a fact of modern life.

The answer is: get more efficient and be more effective.

And that requires first-class managers.

An example is in the way government services are delivered. A negative outcome of the generally positive late-1980s state sector reforms was “silo-isation”. Departments and agencies operated in separated, distinct “silos”.

So an “at-risk family”, to use weasel-word jargon, might deal with more than a dozen agencies separately.

For around a decade the public service has been trying to fix that under a programme now code-named “no wrong door”: by June 2007 people dealing with state agencies are supposed to get quickly to those most relevant to their needs and agencies are supposed to coordinate their work.

The Ministry of Social Development set up Heartland Services in smaller centres to give ready access to a range of social services under one roof.

The State Services Commission is trying to replicate that approach in larger centres by improving data sharing, linkages and referrals between agencies (and with relevant non-state agencies) and ensuring people are aware of services available to them (which, if they access them early, might save the taxpayer money later).

The commission last month reported on an intensive study of people’s good and bad experiences, including those of business, dealing with state agencies in Rotorua. It is now setting out to apply those lessons with the aim that by 2010 “government agencies work together to coordinate the availability of services across the country” by co-locating offices, jointly delivering some services and improving all forms of access, from smiling receptionists to easy-to-use websites.

Backing this sort of activity as a minister could make Brownlee into a hero. Putting his and colleagues’ weight into improving coordination, efficiency and effectiveness rather than just banging on about raw numbers will be the acid test of a National-led government as an effective manager of the state services.

And Brownlee will need to be assiduous. As one agency in Rotorua told the SSC’s researchers: “It’s tough keeping coordination going. You have to really want to do it.” There’s a motivational challenge for a minister-to-be.