A code for the servants of diggers and bailers

Two important rules for ministers are: when in a hole, stop digging; when water comes over the side, start bailing.

Steve Maharey has spent most of this year bailing the “20 hours free” waka and might just keep it afloat and get it into calm waters a safe distance from the election. Damien O’Connor has spent most of this year digging, to the point that he is near out of sight down a hole. Any future shovelling would best be done from top.

When the politics and/or officials go wrong, a minister has two choices: back the officials and push on in the belief or hope it will all come right (Maharey); or try to put space between the cabinet and officials (O’Connor this past week).

Maharey has three advantages: he has been around a long time; he is personable, with a high IQ, much vigour and a touch of panache; and, while the Ministry of Education is not a state-of-the-art institution and teachers are a tetchy lot, the ministry’s operating environment is relatively benign — people think education is a good thing.

O’Connor has not long been in the cabinet; he is well-meaning rather than brilliant and panache is not a West Coast product; and the Corrections Department has had rickety systems and a mottled workforce which does a job very few want to do with a bad or mad clientele most people don’t want a bar of.

Would Maharey’s energetic bailing have saved the government from the Corrections corrosion? Probably not. Its malaise is not unique: some United States state corrections systems tell worse stories.

To manage the politics of a department with suspect systems and white ants and bad eggs through the ranks, Helen Clark needed a hard hitter to link with Barry Matthews and drive change while still keeping the show running — a most difficult balancing act. Leaving it in the care of an apprentice has done real damage to her government.

At the centre of Clark’s and O’Connor’s conundrum is which way a minister faces. Historically in England ministers headed their departments and faced the people — British ministers’ offices are still in their departments. In 1972 here Norman Kirk wanted ministers to stand at the head of the people and face their departments.

Kirk and his government didn’t live long enough to make the transition most governments do from people’s champion to officials’ apologist.

O’Connor’s mistake on his Prime Minister’s behalf was to stand publicly too long at the head of a department needing adjustment — a decent thing to do and, if the adjustment had gone fast enough, probably the right thing.

The irony now is that, if National’s excellent Simon Power wants to inherit a rehabilitated department (which he does), it needs space to adjust — but Power has created a political shark pool which leaves no space. A company in the private sector can close its doors. Chubb can cut and run from carting prisoners. A private prison can go into liquidation. A department has to stay in business.

Constant attack creates a serious danger of a spiral: bad news deters good people from working there; so the news gets worse; good people leave. Power logically will tread carefully from now on. Grandstanding about firing the chief executive will likely just ensure he gets a less able one to work with.

There is a parallel point: doing the public’s business has its own distinct ethos.

It is possible, but not enough, to do a public or state service job in the same minimalist way as canning peas, digging drains or punching keys at the checkout: go to work, go through the motions, try to make the best of it, collect your pay.

In fact, sensible private sector companies look for more: a sense of involvement and sharing the company purpose. Treating workers as wage slaves (or real slaves, as in capitalist China’s darker corners) is for a developing economy. It is not the way to a high-wage and sustainably high-profit economy.

In the public/state sector shared purpose is not optional. It is core. To be accepted as positively contributing to economic and social wellbeing, the state needs workers and managers who stitch “public service” into their work. That in a sense is their “brand”.

Not everyone arrives at departmental doors with that ethos built in. Corrections’ troubles tell us that. So State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble will today issue a revised “code of conduct” for public/state staff to pin on their cubicle walls.

Excerpts: “strive to make a difference to the wellbeing of New Zealand and all its people”; “make government services accessible and effective”; “political neutrality”; do the job “unaffected by our personal beliefs”; “use our organisation’s resources carefully and only for intended purposes”; “improve performance and efficiency”; “be honest”; “never misuse our position for personal gain” and “decline gifts or benefits”.

If all Corrections’ staff had done all that, O’Connor would not be near out of sight in his hole. Now, has Power got what it takes to ensure he gets such a staff?