The next public service

Comments by Colin James at launch of Bill Ryan and Derek Gill, Future State, 1 March 2012

This book comes at an opportune time, shortly before John Key announces what the government is doing with the “Better Public Services” advisory group’s report. Some talk of this report having been as groundbreaking as in the 1980s when, some say, including in this book, we led the world with new public managerialism, separation of functions, chief executives in charge of resources, a focus on outputs, accrual accounting, more transparent fiscal policy, and inflation targeting by an independent Reserve Bank. The public service got much more focused on “clients” and “customers” (end-users), which improved service delivery. It got more efficient.

Fifteen years ago some of the limitations were already being agonised over: multiple fiefdoms, silos, the disjunction of policy from action, the difficulty of relating outputs to outcomes (or results), displacement of blame by politicians on to public servants and much else that is detailed in this book.

Additionally, as Peter Hughes has pointed out in recent speeches, in the 1980s function was expected to follow form: a set of principles was applied top-down and public servants were expected to act as if they embodied — or at least had internalised — those principles.

In this next round of reforms it would make more sense, Peter says and I think it is logical, for form to follow function, that is, for more bottom up than top-down, which Bill Ryan correctly doubts in this book will work this time round. Drastic restructuring damages morale, leaches institutional knowledge and usually undermines effectiveness for a period. People are people. They don’t like being numbers.

One of the encouraging things about this book is the examples of organic change: bottom up experimentation and entrepreneurship, inventiveness and enterprise, though, as Bill Ryan and Derek Gill say, often “under the radar”, “fragile unless protected” and “subject to staffing restructures and transfers so continuity was punctuated”. In the book you will find references to “investment” (implying a “return” instead of just a purchase, and introducing more financial rigour than most ministers will be able to accommodate, though the idea is at the heart of the latest welfare reform initiatives), joined-up government and its more recent extension, “collaborative governance”, illustrated at top level in agency and ministerial clusters and now a “superminister”, Steven Joyce.

I mentioned effectiveness. That is, I think, the key (small k). John Key (big K) talked only of efficiency at a recent press conference in which he discussed the “better public services” programme. He did not mention effectiveness. An economist will say effectiveness is an ingredient of efficiency, which was the way many saw the relationship between those two concepts in respect of the changes in the 1980s. But in the real world where people, not equations, live, efficiency is an ingredient of effectiveness, which is the translation of outputs into recognisable, measurable — and desired– outcomes. Better public services will be better only if they are effective. John Key didn’t make a good start. What he focused on translates in the daily media as “cuts”. The devalues the aim of the “better public services” programme.

There is a push and a pull at work on the public service — as on the whole economy and our society (and politics). This book details and examines a lot of both the push and the pull.

The pull is an expectation now that goods and services will be custom-made and so the means of access to them and delivery of them be customised. This expectation has been building for two or three decades as technology and globalisation have enabled a transition from mass production to mass customisation. Particularly younger people have that expectation. Fordism is long dead in the private sector and is dying in the public sector. The factory state was time-bound in the twentieth century.

That emphasises that the two sectors are much less distinct than many have presumed. The border is porous. I expect — and much in this book underlines my expectation — that it will become more porous.

The push for change is the changing geopolitics and geoeconomy, rapidly changing demographics, lightning changes in IT and communication, resource pressures, fiscal pressure (our comparator countries will increasingly be Asian which will be unlikely to build such big welfare states as in northern Europe) and a lot else, including a rethinking of basic ideas as 500 years of western dominance is challenged by rising cultures. These are putting pressure, sometimes intense pressure, on people and their governments. The Tea Party reflects that pressure on the American middle class.

Our society and economy, as the book’s introduction puts it, “are set in an increasingly fast-paced, heterogeneous, complex and unpredictable global environment. How this country responds to the new environment will determine its future prosperity and wellbeing of its citizens. The capability and capacity of New Zealand’s public sector will have a significant bearing on the country’s ability to adapt and flourish.”

That requires far more than “efficiency”. The danger is that we very efficiently get the responses wrong. It requires, at the centre of the PS, some very good brains and personal characteristics.

The authors talk of a “range of models and approaches” and say public servants “will need the skills to adopt the best combination”. The risk is that politicians fixated on fiscal limits and limited ideologies, instincts, prejudices and light-bulb intellectual flashes will hamper the fostering of the skills that are needed. My guess is that much will be got wrong. The good news, I think, is that Bill English does seem to get most of this and he may be able over time to get other ministers to get some of it too.

Even if they don’t that doesn’t let public servants off the redevelopment and reinvention hooks. Their brief is to get on with making public services better, which the book, encouragingly, tells us some are: “Quietly and unheralded … these officials” [the experimental and entrepreneurial ones I mentioned before and I think of Peter Hughes in this context] “were getting on with the next stage of reform … as they continue to do.”

There is another dimension. Public servants don’t serve just the minister. They serve the public. Their brief is to think beyond the political horizon and beneath the political froth, as this book here and there underlines.

For that and many other reasons, this book should be read.

* Ryan, Bill and Derek Gill, eds, Future State: Directions for Public Management in New Zealand (Victoria University Press; Wellington 2011)