Groupthink in the public service

Where is the government? Scattered through dozens of ministries and departments and myriad other agencies, each with a separate brief. Small wonder it can’t get its act together. Well, self-help is on the way in the form of chief executive groupings.

Since the balkanising and efficiency-focused state sector reforms 20 years ago, there has been much agonising over the “silos” the reforms produced and a variety of attempts to improve coordination.

At the coalface, there is now better cooperation among agencies in some portfolio areas — notably in social services and the justice system (police, courts, prisons).

That recognises that often an issue arises because of factors outside an agency’s aegis (as, for example, in health and corrections). That agency has an interest in action by other agencies. For that, “joined-up government” or “whole of government” action is needed.

The answer is not superministries. Victoria, which tried that, found that silos can form within big agencies as readily as between smaller agencies.

The evolving response here is for chief executives to form groups focused on sets of issues.

An early example was the social sector grouping, now headed by Ministry of Social Development chief executive Peter Hughes. It has an overarching group, with subgroups focusing on education, health, housing, justice and housing.

Its role is, in Hughes’ words, to “fill in the white spaces” — areas where there is no specific agency responsibility or which can come under several agencies.

The group has a fixed meeting time each month. Only rarely may a chief executive substitute a deputy. It has a small secretariat of deputy chief executives. Its focus is on the medium-term.

This group produced a social sector briefing to the new government. Until now each agency has separately produced a BIM (briefing to the incoming minister) for each ministerial reshuffle, most notably after each election. Now in some case chief executive groups are also producing group BIMs.

Nowhere is this more important than in what was called “sustainability” under the Labour-led governments and is now being called “natural resources”.

Paul Reynolds, who last year moved from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to head the Ministry for the Environment, pulled together a chief executives group over the last five months of 2008.

Seven agencies are involved: the environment, agriculture and forestry, fisheries and economic development ministries, the Conservation Department, Land Information New Zealand and Te Puni Kokiri. The chief executives of the Treasury, State Services Commission and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet sit in.

Again, a monthly meeting; no substitutes; a small (probably three-person) secretariat to be drawn from across the group; the focus on “complex and interconnected” policy areas.

That group, too, produced a cross-sector BIM. Its focus was on the environment as an economic factor. Higher environmental standards and efficiencies are likely to be essential for economic growth, the BIM said, “to gain premiums for our exports and probably even to maintain market access”. It argued a need to ensure “resources are used efficiently by those who value them most (in an economic, social or cultural sense) and resource users face the costs they impose on others or the environment”.

This is a harder-headed approach than “sustainability”, which defied translation into practical programmes. In essence it proposes a marriage, rather than just a balance, between the environment and the economy. The harder-headedness appeals to the new government; the marriage will take some time getting used to.

A third group produced a cross-sector BIM: on infrastructure. The new government has an infrastructure group of ministers and the chief executives group offers a logical underpinning, though it has yet to be formalised.

What’s the point?

The aim is to get chief executives to think strategically about cross-portfolio interconnected issues and drive action down into their agencies — rather than, as when they have met in the past, passively receiving reports from subordinates with a primary focus on their agencies’ specific briefs.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie intends to hold chief executives accountable for their contributions to the group’s objectives in addition to their running of their agencies.

There is a long way to go. But, equally, this is a step on from the past nine years’ plethora of strategies, frameworks, stocktakes and roadmaps. The groups deal with what Rennie describes as “a small set of big issues” rather than grand designs.

And they might just manage to “join up” the government into a “whole government” — here and there, at least.