The efficient way to meet spending constraints

Grant Robertson, MP for public servants, is keeping a tally of sackings — 1200 at his latest count. If he sticks to this task, he is assured of a long-term job.

National last year promised a “cap” on core public service staff numbers but also a shuffle: fewer “bureaucrats” and more on the “front line”, especially in hospitals, police and prisons.

The precipitous fiscal slide has turned cap into cuts, making head office and support staff an endangered species. Over time the public sector has to cost less if Bill English is to rebalance the budget.

That means, as English puts it, departments and other agencies will remain constrained for a long time. Even when economies here and abroad grow again, the baby-boomers will inflate the aged component of the population, expanding the cost of superannuation and health care and leaving less tax revenue for other activities.

There are two main options.

One is to be tough-minded about what is being done and drop the least important and least achievable activities. That is under way, though some agencies are taking time to get up to speed.

The second is to use bright ideas to do things more efficiently — ideas from the private sector, non-government organisations, agencies’ staffs and suppliers of services. For example, suppliers of information technology say the public sector’s information systems are clunky, outdated and uncoordinated.

Take the courts. The past answer to delays in dealing with offenders has been to build more courts and appoint more judges. But that doesn’t keep up. So justice (or what passes for justice in the crime system) is frequently delayed, which negates a cornerstone tenet. Former Labour MP Phillip Field’s meandering prosecution has been a case in point.

The Labour-led government started to address this disgrace. The present Minister of Justice, Simon Power, for example, cooperated with former Courts Minister Rick Barker to pass legislation to restrict deposition hearings — which amounted to a pre-trial semi-trial in which the prosecution laid out its case for the defence to pick over while a judge or JP decided whether there should be a full trial. These are to be dealt with more succinctly and mostly on paper rather than in ponderous hearings, trapping witnesses in court.

This change is part of a wider-ranging “simplification project” which Power is driving.

He has proposed a higher threshold for jury trials to restrict juries to more serious crimes. (The Law Society said both that it would not affect many cases and that defendants were losing an important right.) He wants lawyers holding up the system to be disciplined, prosecutors to clarify whether they are prosecuting summarily or indictably and trials to go ahead in the accused’s absence if a plea has been entered. On the defence side he has Dame Margaret Bazley reviewing legal aid and the public defenders system which has been operating in Auckland is to go national.

These “simplifications” and “structural reform” are the third part of a four-part programme. The first was Power’s bunch of get-tough bills, passed or introduced in the first 100 days, purporting to enhance “safety”. The second was to launch an inquiry into the “drivers” of crime to see whether judicious investment in intervention might divert youngsters from a life of crime. He will detail the fourth, yet to be disclosed, in upcoming speeches, starting soon.

The “simplification” is obviously relevant to judges, lawyers, the police, witnesses, juries, the accused and their victims — and the public, if less ponderous courts marginally improve safety.

But also important to the public is lower cost through greater efficiency gained from tighter procedures, modern technology and innovative ideas — and, at the butt end of the system, through private management of prisons (so ministers believe). That is the productivity lift English wants for the whole public sector.

An obvious technology tool for efficiency is information technology (IT). Ministers cite immigration and tax as needing step-change upgrades.

The police and the courts rely heavily on paper. In a digital age this seems not only quaint but stupid — and costly. Often police fax something to a court — in the real world people email. Courts could use audio-visual links more in place of carting people round the country.

But generally public sector agencies under spending pressure have been putting IT investment on hold while they think what to do about costs. Staff are being fired. Suppliers are downsizing or going bust — that is, firing staff.

The result is that English’s current pressure on departments is holding back a major mechanism for meeting his longer-term productivity objective. The risk in that delay is unnecessary cuts in services — and unnecessary additions to Robertson’s public sector sackings tally at a time when unemployment is climbing in the private sector.

That just goes to show it takes time for ministers to get efficient, too.