Is the public service serving the public?

On Thursday Bill English will give his annual pep-talk to the Institute of Public Administration. It comes as we are reminded that the then Ministry of Economic Development in 2011 bent tendering rules to obey John Key’s wish for a deal with Sky City.

Wily Sky City has now taught Key a lesson. But there is a deeper lesson for public servants listening to English this Thursday.

Ministers come and go. The public service endures. The public service must carry out ministers’ lawful instructions — ministers are elected and public servants are not. But it must also keep in front of ministers and the public issues that reach beyond ministers’ personal and party preferences and time in office and options for action on those issues.

In the past post-election briefings to incoming ministers did something like that, at least those of some agencies. But many of last year’s were “redacted” before publication to anticipate or incorporate ministers’ reactions. That verged on servility. It is a small step from there to the Security Intelligence Service’s role in the Goff affair.

The public service’s wider duty — to the public, not just to ministers — is highlighted by United States political historian Francis Fukuyama in his 2014 book, Political Order and Political Decay.

Fukuyama says one ingredient of a state-of-the-art governing system is a well-functioning democracy. With some quibbles (the “coattail” gerrymander, some campaign finance rules, low-ish voter turnout and limited alternative mechanisms for consensus-building and bottom-up citizens initiatives), ours largely is. Contrast the oligarchy-enslaved United States system, of which Fukuyama despairs.

Fukuyama’s second element is an independent judiciary administering the rule of law. By and large we still have that, though there are tendencies towards the United States’ “rule of lawyers”.

Fukuyama’s third element, on which again the United States does not measure up for him, is a strong administrative system and well-run social services.

This implies that agencies are not just subservient to ministers — that is, they are a public service serving the public, not just a state service serving the Crown.

There are examples. Some agencies are now doing the longer-range thinking ministers told them in 2009 to lay off. The Treasury’s 2013 long-term fiscal projection went much deeper than earlier ones and it plans to go deeper in the next one.

Moreover, English’s “better public services” reforms have toughened the administrative system by pushing bosses to refocus on necessary and/or higher-return programmes — that is, “doing more with less” — and to measure themselves by “results”, many of which cross agency boundaries. Outcome: some efficiencies and some improved effectiveness. Surveys of public satisfaction have been rising.

But that masks a concern among some public servants, some at high level, about the relationship with ministers and the effect of ministers’ attitudes and conduct on the scope and rigour of advice they can offer.

Take social housing. Involving charities and community organisations in supplying houses to the needy reflects English’s drive to get better value from government assets and to reduce government balance-sheet exposure. Senior officials say the Housing Corporation’s recent improvements have not been acknowledged.

The social housing kerfuffle also reflects ministers’ frustration with what they see as public service agencies’ limitations and lack of flexibility. English is looking outside the Ministry for Social Development for data from which to fine-tune social assistance. He contrasts specific client data compiled by the Auckland City Mission with the MSD’s less fine-grained data (necessarily less fine-grained, MSD defenders say). A proposed South Auckland social project has stalled while ministers rethink.

This illustrates a bother in the capital that some ministers have become imperious and dismissive. This grumble began in Helen Clark’s reign but has become more common since the 2014 election.

Take the attacks, led by women ministers, on State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie’s mishandling of Roger Sutton’s departure. Rennie’s error was egregious but not the hanging offence it in effect became. Consequently, the public service’s “corporate head office” has lost morale and authority at the very time when, if the public service is to fully serve the public, a strong central lead is needed.

Fixing it may require CPR of the type Peter Hughes has administered to the Ministry of Education, then a transformative boss (but who?).

The other two central agencies, the Prime Minister’s Department and the Treasury, have also lost mana. Three major agencies are in leadership transitions. Insiders talk of a dearth of top-job-calibre No 2s and 3s. They worry how to get and keep top talent.

Does this matter to the voter-in-the-street? Fukuyama would say so. English mostly would, too. But is he the solution or the problem?