The (enduring) public background to public service

Prepared for the public sector CEOs Retreat, 6 March 2014

State or public: Do public servants serve the state or the public? “State” and “public” are generally used as if they are fully interchangeable but are they?

If public servants serve the state, that is, if they were state servants only, then the duty would be simply to carry out the lawful instructions of the minister who (though, as a member of Parliament an elected representative of the public) is appointed by the head of state to be a minister of state.

The minister is an amateur in public administration, so usually needs and usually seeks advice from state servants. There is a convention, or rule of thumb, that that advice should be the most rigorous the state servant can provide from available facts, research and modelling. But the minister’s various needs, instincts and ideology usually prevail. In that process the public interest and interests of the public are relevant only as interpreted and translated by the minister, who may have recourse to people outside the state service.

Consequently, a commonly voiced current criticism of government agencies, chief executives and staff is that they are slavish and fearful servants of their ministers and limit their advice to what they divine the minister wants or expects. The Rebstock report added credence to this belief. A related belief is that innovation (which may be in the broader public interest) may risk the minister’s disapproval. Ministers and the State Services Commission dispute these beliefs and point to the publication of advice which conflicts with ministers’ decisions and actions.

If public servants serve the public, they logically do more than just serve the minister and carry out the minister’s lawful decisions.

First, independently of the minister, public servants — servants of the public —continually inquire into, attempt to understand and keep in mind the wider and longer-term public interest and interests of the public as a whole, even when those conclusions are at odds with the minister’s needs, instincts and ideology. In the short term and in the narrower frame drawn by political partisanship and ideology, the minister, as an elected representative of the people, is one interpreter and translator of the public interest. In the longer and broader sense the public servant, as a servant of the public, is another, and important, interpreter.

Second, the public servant is a public servant before and after any particular minister is a minister of state. That implies developing, and being something akin to a custodian of, policies and systems that endure through changes of minister.

What is the public interest in public services? The state exists to secure the realm. To do that it needs armed forces, police and revenue collectors, who are state servants. It needs a monopoly on the exercise of power, constrained only by the degree to which the citizens can apply limits through collective action in groups and/or nationally by way of elected representatives. Where collective action through elected representatives is well developed, as in New Zealand, the state can be an instrument of that collective action and is often seen that way — hence the fusion of state servant and public servant in legislative terminology and common discussion. Moreover, in a modern advanced nation most of what the state does is as the instrument of collective action, providing a wide range of services, including regulation of some individual activity in the interests of the collective. Most public servants deliver or manage the delivery of such services. They are public services.

Thus the public interest in public services is in policies and programmes that reflect, give shape to and implement broad public preferences. This requires public servants to inquire into, collect and assess expressions of those preferences by the public or relevant sections of the public. Ideally, public servants should do that as free as practicable of ideology or doctrine, including that of the minister.

The interests of the public in public services is that they meet needs which are not met by market or private provision or are required by law and meet those needs cost-efficiently and effectively. This is most people’s experience of public services and public servants and the experience is specific to the individual and to the particular service. It is akin to the need for a private company to meet its customers’ needs and wants cost-efficiently and effectively.

An important corollary is that, as far as the recipient of the service is concerned, it is in effect less important who actually delivers the service (a government agency, a not-for-profit or a for-profit firm) than that it is delivered well. (An exception is a service where the delivery agency must be clearly, visibly and formally separated from vested interests, for example, those which regulate and supervise.)

Similarly, if the service is delivered by a government agency it is usually unimportant to the recipient which agency delivers the service and what the structures and systems are. A person dealing with a particular agency may have a specific relationship with that agency. But most think of “the government” as the agent. That points towards a unified public service (single contact points, collaboration, etc).

Is there a public service or only public services? If the designers of public service systems, organisations and operations focus only on meeting specific, individual needs, logically the delivery agencies would be organised as if they were firms. This concept can even be extended to advice to ministers, if they are considered to be “clients” or “customers”. This approach fits comfortably into the notion of the public service as a state service and infuses the 1988 reforms and the State Sector Act. It also contributed to (or required?) the fragmentation of public services.

If designers of systems, organisation and operations incorporate broad public preferences into the design, that adds a need for the public service to operate as a unified whole. Otherwise the preferences will be fragmented and policy settings and implementation will reflect that. The risk in that is that vested interests drive policy more than the broad public interest would require.

This is a common currently voiced criticism of the public service, including by ministers. Designers of public (state) service organisations and systems have puzzled since the mid-1990s how to offset this fragmentation.

Is there a long-term public interest or only a short-term one? Ministers are constrained by the short duration of their tenure of office, seldom more than six years and usually much shorter, and by limits to how long a government remains in office. Public servants are not constrained either by a minister’s tenure or a government’s tenure.

Nor is the public, though public opinion and preferences can be influenced by ministers’ short-term actions and objectives.

That suggests there is an evolving longer-term public interest. Hence the duty of a public servant, as distinct from a state servant, to think and where practicable act in that longer-term interest.

Making durable public service decisions. If there is a longer-term public interest, however much it may be periodically interrupted or bent by unforeseen events, the public service’s advice, actions and organisational and systemic arrangements need to be durable.

An OECD study suggested that for major reform to be durable, it must either give effect to, anticipate or build consensus, or at least majority support. Much the same could be said for systemic arrangements of the public service. To be durable through changes of elected government, it needs to be underpinned by public consensus or majority support or at least major-party agreement which over time generates a status quo likely to win at least acquiescence (as was the case with the 1980s liberalising economic reforms).
The aim needs to be that the public thinks of “our government” not “the government” (separate from the public).

How to get consensus? The presumption until recently was — and in some quarters still is —that a well-functioning representative democracy delivered an operational consensus in that the public and the political parties the public voted for accepted that the allocation of votes conferred legitimate power and losers accepted that winners must prevail.

This presumption has been challenged by three developments over the past two decades or so:

1. Voter participation has declined, indicating that the policy and systems results of representative democracy have less legitimacy or that a smaller proportion of those qualified to vote regard them as legitimate or important.

2. Government ministers themselves have recognised they must reach more widely into the public and specific publics within the general public which have a particular interest in policies or programmes
—(a) to understand public preferences (mainly through opinion polling and focus groups, where once the transmission channels were mainly through broad political party memberships),
—(b) to involve experts and interests more actively in policy formation (as in working groups and collaborative governance, cf the Land and Water Forum), so that policy has greater precision and/or legitimacy with affected groups,
—(c) to consult both with interest groups and the broad public on policy proposals and to make the consultation more than a formality, so that matters important to individuals, groups and communities that may not be known to policymakers and ministers are at least noticed (hence, for example, access to information through the Official Information Act and making cabinet papers public, discussion papers, parliamentary select committee hearings, meetings with the iwi leaders forum and advisory groups), and
—(d) in other countries to involve the broader public in the likes of citizens assemblies, juries and cells, “citizen commissions” and “consensus conferences” to explore difficult or contentious issues and point to solutions which might or will have broad public support or at least public legitimacy.

3. At the same time as voter participation has declined, other forms of “citizens participation” and “participatory democracy” have grown. Increasingly, the public (more accurately some of the public) expects to participate at some times in decisions on some things in some way or to some degree or expects at least to be listened to or acknowledged. Increasingly, mechanisms are being constructed, tested and used to develop, refine and validate policy change. To some extent, new digital technologies are enabling and/or driving this.

This growing expectation is not a linear growth. People get involved sporadically, issue by issue and many still never get involved. But there does appear to be a trajectory. Anyone devising public policy or systems needs to be aware of this trajectory.

For policies, operations and systems to be durable they must not be offside with these developments.
And to the extent people think of “the government”, not individual agencies, the response to increasing citizens participation would usefully be unified or at least consistent.

Innovation, enterprise, efficiency and effectiveness: For an efficient and effective public service that meets continually evolving public expectations, there needs to be innovation. One important channel is to encourage frontline and mid-level staff to innovate and to partner with not-for-profits and for-profits. Innovation comes with risk and ministers are highly risk-averse to political bad stories.

So a common criticism of the public service is that agencies are risk-averse to allowing and/or adopting bottom-up innovation, whether from staff or from not-for-profits and for-profits, for which contracts are written so tightly that they stifle enterprise and turn contractors in effect into servants.

The public service grew big on the model of the mass-production factory. That model is long out of fashion in advanced economies. Logically, the public service should follow the more flexible and dispersed production model that has evolved. Not-for-profits and for-profits are logically part of that evolution. Unsurprisingly, this trajectory runs alongside growing citizen participation. Citizens are likely over time to expect this more diverse delivery model within the government “brand”/umbrella.

To do this effectively in the face of likely periodic ministerial nervous reactions, the public service will need to take seriously the “public” dimension of its role, as distinct from the “state” dimension.

Problems and opportunities. The usual terminology public servants use is “problems”. This encourages short-term responses and alleviation of stress, including political stress, and is often palliative. (It also provides a raison d’etre for public servants.)

An alternative terminology is “opportunities”, which encourages investment, long-term thinking and a focus on actual change in social or economic conditions (generally or for groups or for classes of individuals). Policies and systems with an “opportunity” focus are more likely to engender consensus and be durable, despite ministers’ short-term excitements. People like reading/hearing/viewing bad news in the media but they prefer good news in real life and a public service (and government) convincingly pointing towards improvement is more likely to be seen as good news at the household level.

So the 2015-25 public service might usefully…
—rethink whether it is a state or public service,
—if it is a public service, rethink what is the public — and what are the publics — it serves,
—work out what that service (and provision of services) involves, taking into account the immediate constitutional requirement to serve ministers,
—continue to develop systems that deliver that service (and those services) coherently and as a unified public service and
—associated with that, continue to develop flexible ways of delivering services, including through not-for-profits and for-profits, but do so in a way that does not stifle innovation and enthusiasm and
—do all that at a time of greater citizen awareness and expectations and
—in such a way that those citizens think of “our government” rather than “the government” and
—with the aim of making a genuine contribution to the public interest.