Need "results": let's have a 1980s restructure

A quote: “Restructuring is expensive and disruptive and can be counterproductive, at least in the short term.” So much for the sprawling realm John Key is aggregating for Steven Joyce.

And who said it? A niggling academic or unionist? Actually, the very “better public services” advisory group of big guns whose December report ministers say they are following. Ministers would not have had to read far: it is on the third page of the executive summary.

The advisory group did say “some consolidation” is needed to counter “diseconomies of scale” but should not be “wholesale” (Key agreed in his speech) and could often be done by rationalising accommodation — for example, the Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI) shifted last year into the Ministry of Economic Development’s building — or consolidating functions without actual physical mergers.

This decade’s communications mechanisms can do much of what office relocation aims at. For example, the group recommended “policy hubs”. (In any case walls get built inside big organisations as readily as between smaller ones.)

Ministers also did not mention the advisory group’s recommendation for better and more flexible contracting. This is needed formally with outside suppliers and providers and informally with staff to get the best from them.

Restructuring is 1980s MBA-think. In that distant era function followed form (or was supposed to). At least two advisory group members think that is the wrong way round now. This round of reform, they had hoped, would be to change function and let form follow in due course — if it turns out to need changing. The group did not recommend Key’s merger.

In fact, the heads of the merging agencies have been meeting and over time might have achieved all the merger will without the disruption.

Moreover, the cabinet’s urge to merge has left dangling the bits of the Labour Department’s work that don’t fit a “business” model, notably workplace safety, neglect of which gave us Pike River. Likewise with MSI’s non-business science bits and the Department of Building and Housing’s social housing bit.

But ministers like action and concreteness. They didn’t get to where they got by reading novels or swotting multiple degrees like their pointyheaded advisers who in early 2011 Key said were bloated in numbers and Bill English said spout waffle.

In fact, two prominent outsiders who took top public service jobs have privately expressed delighted surprise at their staffs’ quality and dedication. English himself said in late 2010 he had often looked for, and implied he got, “excellent analysis” from public servants to correct politicians’ own belief in “hunches, feelings, moods and votes”.

But the cabinet wants “results” to put to voters in 2014, hence Key’s concrete “targets”. “Results” have been the preoccupation for 2014 since before the 2011 election.

“Results” are another name for “outcomes”, things that happen as a result of what public servants do. The idea is that agencies and sectors will pursue results which they, politicians and voters can recognise and towards which progress can be measured by targets. Too often now public servants beaver away on “outputs” regardless of whether they actually change things.

Now an irony: to sharpen the results focus, the advisory group proposed “operationally independent executive agencies”. That would expand the range and number of agencies.

And tight targets come with a risk: that agencies will focus on them to the exclusion of other outcomes which are harder to define or measure or deliver but important to slog away at.

In health, for which last term Tony Ryall defined targets with numbers, that risk appears to have materialised here and there even as Ryall’s targets were met. Tight targets in the “justice pipeline”, which puts police, courts, prisons and rehabilitation into one cost-and-benefit calculation, do not address post-justice outcomes or deeper causes such as a bad early childhood.

The word “sectors” highlights an important focus of the advisory group: collaboration between agencies with intersecting responsibilities. Some sectors made post-election briefings to ministers last year. English plans changes to the Public Finance Act to enable more flexible funding of sectoral activities. The group recommended similarly-aimed State Sector Act changes and making the State Services Commissioner the Head of State Services, with more powers.

The group’s agenda goes far beyond mergers and targets. If followed, it might well make “better public services”. Key’s speech was at most a start.

* Re bananas: one correspondent has found them growing in Whanganui and around East Cape. Another said home-grown bananas “like the ones I ate for lunch today … are the sweetest and creamiest on the planet” and not “marginal” as last week’s correspondent said, then added that “anyone growing marginal bananas is not giving them enough hen manure”, which “maybe is a metaphor for the political scene”.