A better public service? That's the hype

Two “superministers” are the core of the John Key government’s second term and with one of them comes an ambitious remake of public services.

Key’s most important appointment in December was of Steven Joyce as economic development superminister.

Joyce directly runs the economic development, science and innovation and tertiary education portfolios. Tertiary education links to science, skills and labour. Phil Heatley’s energy and resources and Amy Adams’ ICT officials are inside the Ministry of Economic Development. David Carter’s primary industries are the cash cows of development and Gerry Brownlee’s transport duties are mainly infrastructure, critical to economic development.

Joyce is officially an associate in finance to Bill English. Finance is almost by definition a superportfolio but English has ranged far beyond the usual budgetary supervision.

He announced with Nick Smith the green growth advisory group a year ago. He was alongside Paula Bennett on several announcements and drove the adoption of the actuarial/investment approach to “dependency” conundrums. He shook the cabinet law and order focus by pronouncing prisons a “fiscal and moral failure” at a Families Commission conference last May. The “standards” policy for education was his initiative. He prodded the Treasury to be more adventurous on tax by way of a wide-ranging working group, copied, with adjustments, for “welfare” and to greatly widen debate on the next 40-year fiscal projections.

And it is English who is pushing the “better public services” initiative. An announcement is due soon.

Key’s two superministers have very different instincts, personalities and operational styles: English the policy and numbers wonk with the long-sighted, wide-ranging, even intellectual, perspective but leaden speech; Joyce the efficient day-to-day project manager, silver-tongued and wary of political risk.

How well those two mesh — and how well Key makes sure they do — will go a long way to defining the government’s second term. Insiders say they do mesh well. If at some point they don’t, Key’s decentralised management will be tested — much more critically than mollifying the muddled, marginal Maori party.

Across in social policy there are not yet superministers. But there are clusters — for example, Judith Collins as Justice Minister heads one encompassing her portfolio, courts, corrections and police; she is reportedly more enthusiastic about this cluster now she has the central portfolio.

Cabinet clusters and superministers match officials’ clusters. The intention is to make boundaries between agencies porous, get staff working across portfolios overseen by cluster leaders in pursuit of definable and measurable “outcomes” rather than just ticking off “outputs” whether or not they make a real difference.

This is core to the “better public services initiative”.

Through 2011 a small advisory board of top departmental chief executives and three outsiders who understand the public service is not a company generated a stack of papers stacked with ideas, including clearer priorities, the government doing only what it is best placed to do, “best sourcing” of providers (some public, some private) and incentives for innovation.

One senior official involved talks of a “new paradigm” and another of potentially world-leading reforms, as in 1988 when activity was refocused from going by the book to serving “clients” (and much else).

The 2012 process differs from that of 1988, when structures were radically changed and public service culture was expected to adapt. The culture did adapt but took time and after disruption that was costly in personnel, morale and institutional knowledge.

This time (after some early structural fixations, as in primary industries, state libraries and archives), the aim is the reverse: to change the culture and make structural change only where cultural change naturally or necessarily leads to it.

The idea is that form will follow function, not function follow form: organic rather than organisational change.

That requires a focus on “outcomes”. Outcomes have been an aim since the early 1990s. But they have been set at a high level — “close to god”, one of the advisory board says — and so out of sight and reach. Now, as another puts it, they are to be at a level the public can make sense of and then judge progress and results.

A great deal follows from this in innovative contracting, flexible, multi-year budgeting, IT use (the key to improved access by and interaction with the public), shared services and a range of other techniques the advisory board explored.

How much has survived cabinet fears and patch protection is not clear. The media are likely to reduce it all to “cuts” because most of it is not the stuff of pub-and-club talk. Bill English says there is no big bang and it will be a long process.

But, if done well, it could be the biggest thing the government does this term. Just the job for superministers.