Bye-bye Maurice. Big public service reform is under way

What is common to the Len Brown, Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson scandals? In each case a Chinese was a contributing source.

This is not cause for Sinophobia, which Williamson has grumped about in the past and again last week and which lurks just under the surface of our vaunted liberal multiculturalism.

Most Chinese learn hard, work hard and save hard, qualities eroded among New Zealanders in the baby-boom and house-bubble years. As Chinese come in numbers through this century to live and invest, most will add to the country’s wealth.

But they bring with them a different business-to-business and business-to-government culture. A low-level example is a cash or gift offer to a justice of the peace in reciprocity for notarising a document. A higher level example is a reciprocity donation to political parties, National especially.

That different culture does not fit with the practice and principles as they have evolved here. If a JP accepted a gift, however harmlessly intended, that would negate and invalidate the notarisation. The National party’s mandate is not (yet) invalidated by the donations but a smell is tingling noses in rarified Wellington and, if it grows, might some day waft out into voter-land.

New Zealand wasn’t born in 1840 as the low-corruption state it now is, global No 1 by some calculations. In 1912 a royal commission was set up to replace pervasive nepotism and cronyism with a merit-based, independent public service.

The Key government has slipped back a bit — witness the Sky City slinter. But by world standards it is still way better than even neighbouring Australia, where a state premier and police minister have recently been exposed, let alone China where corruption is endemic and hugely lucrative to those on the take. The new Chinese leadership has been staging show-arrests and show-trials to try to ease public distaste.

Once-corrupt New Zealand has some guidance to offer China’s leaders on public governance if they are genuine about a cleanup, as some argue. That could build on Chinese interest in the past in the state-owned enterprise model here.

But the New Zealand model itself is now not fully fit-for-purpose for the complex, globally connected society and economy that have evolved since the last major reform in 1988 when private sector management and financial systems were introduced, including, now, a world-first government balance sheet, and public services made much more customer-focused.

Those pluses came with a minus, which wishful reformers have wrestled with for two decades: departments and other agencies retreated into “silos”, each too tightly focused on its business to address complex society-wide issues.

Moreover, reforms in 1962 renamed public services state services. That renaming implies a tight focus on doing the state’s business, as dictated by (temporary) ministers, at the expense of attending to and keeping in mind the public’s business, which requires a broad and long view looking beyond the next election.

This has given rise in the past 15 years to a belief among observers that officials are too subservient to ministers.

Labour spokesperson Maryan Street in a speech last week detected an erosion of “the 1912 bulwark against corruption”: ministers meddling in appointment processes, using officials to “crush citizens” and reducing officials’ capacity to give “free and frank” advice and “protect citizens from (ministers’) arbitrary decisions and illegal and harmful actions”.

Labour wants a royal commission to fix all that, including to look “how the public service could operate across ministries and departments in the interests of the public”.

Actually, this is the underlying thrust of the post-2011 “better public services” reforms, which most critics see as cost-cutting. The top brass are, Deputy State Services Commissioner Al Morrison says, now collaborating to “get the public services to think and operate across the whole government system”, to “retain the strengths of individual agency accountability within a system that encompasses collective responsibility”.

A chief executives summit in early March agreed a “declaration” which included: “Mobilise our people and resources to ensure those leading complex system-wide issues are successful”. In concept, each CEO should be a CEO of the whole public service.

This is at two levels. The lower level is to achieve cross-portfolio “results”, on which a start was made with 10 in 2012. The higher level, now under way, is to develop interlocking “narratives” (strategies) which will feed into a unified briefing to the whole post-election incoming government in addition to individual agencies’ usual briefings to incoming ministers.

This is a major shift of mentality, far beyond a few agencies hooking up on a specific task. If it works, it will be the biggest reform since 1988, perhaps since 1912.

Real reform is a deep current. Brown, Collins and Williamson are prickable bubbles on the surface.