Running the government is not for amateurs. Correction: running the government is for amateurs. They are called ministers. They need help.
A new cabinet arrives with ideas, some well-formed, some half-baked, all, they believe, “mandated” by their election. They suspect public servants are infected with the ousted government’s way of thinking.
There is always some hangover. But senior public servants do set out to work out what ministers want, to translate that into workable policy — with advice on what they think won’t work — and then to implement it. That’s their job.
What if they can’t work out what ministers want because the ministers aren’t clear? What if a minister doesn’t have ideas but wants some to show Beehive mates? What if what ministers want is not workable? And what if there is pressure to say it is workable and, later, is working?
As usual, this cabinet is a mixture. Some ministers arrived with a detailed programme ready to go. Tony Ryall is one, Nick Smith another. Unsurprisingly, both were ministers in the 1990s. Also unsurprisingly, both have intruded into the executives’ sphere. That unsettles officials and unsettled officials do suboptimal work.
At the other end of the scale some senior public servants say they can’t work out what their ministers and the government as a whole want. Much of the wishlist is still high-level.
Bill English, who was a 1990s minister, gets this problem. In September he told public servants: “I know that little gets done if they don’t know what’s required and there is no respect for their role or political support when policy inevitably comes under pressure.”
The presumption in his speech was that all three conditions were being met.
That depends on where an agency fits and on the state of policy.
Ministry of Social Development chief executive Peter Hughes was quickly ahead of the game, as were some other chief executives. Hughes is the sort who makes a minister look good (within limits).
In health Ryall has added to his own detailed programme former Treasury Secretary Murray Horn’s report proposing significant structural change. Turning that into an understanding of what is required is a challenge for a department still finding its feet under a relatively new chief executive.
In education National focused in opposition on standards and youth skills, the second of which is proving, in one minister’s words, “a bit tricky”. Beyond that there was little clear direction. In justice the problem is one National mostly skirted in opposition: an insider sums up the challenge as “how not to build the next prison” — that is, how to reduce crime. Policymakers are drawing on officials’ thinking begun under Helen Clark’s government.
So, do public servants know what is required? The picture is mixed.
Economic policy now has six workstreams plus a drive for better management of the core public sector’s $100 billion of assets and large liabilities (for example, in ACC, housing and student loans).
The tax, infrastructure, regulatory reform, state sector productivity and skills workstreams now have some shape or at least a defined work programme.
But innovation and business development was added only after the budget, despite its critical importance to economic performance. This is the “revenue” workstream. It is among senior officials in departments in this workstream that one hears most gripes about lack of clarity from ministers.
“Each time ministers (in this workstream) meet, it becomes less clear what they are after,” one insider put it.
Ministers want innovation within departments, too. They need that if services are to be maintained when departments’ funds don’t keep pace with inflation as English strains to hold down debt. Low-priority and low-achieving programmes are gradually being identified for axing. Hughes has gone through $500 million of his spending.
For innovation, English challenged chief executives early this year and again in September to think creatively and imaginatively and draw on their staffs, non-government organisations and the private sector for ideas.
Translated, that means: “Take risks.”
Wary public servants have heard this before — then wore Clark’s prime ministerial fury over two wayward “social entrepreneurs”. Will John Key’s Beehive amateurs take the heat if a venture goes bad? How are outsiders’ schemes to be evaluated and will they deliver on cue? Labtest’s shambles in Auckland is a warning.
The risk for ministers is they might get what they ask for. The danger for officials is they will then carry the can. Marrying amateurs and professionals is an edgy business.