A new public service act. So a better public service?

Public service failures in the recent news have raised serious questions of competence and oversight.

A muddle involving Housing New Zealand (HNZ), the Ministry of Health and Standards NZ needlessly caused mayhem and cost to a large number of tenants and landlords and taxpayers through evictions and cleanups. Prime ministerial chief science adviser Peter Gluckman’s report was trenchant.

The Ministry for Primary Industries did not strictly enforce the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) system for cows. Mycoplasma bovis spread, at vast cost to farmers and taxpayers.

New information was obtained by Radio NZ on the failure by the Transport Agency (NZTA) in 2016 to ensure independent testing of what turned out to be dangerously defective steel from China destined for Waikato expressway structures.

Add retired Employment Court Judge Coral Shaw’s grim report in May on the dysfunctional culture in the Human Rights Commission (HRC), including tension between commissioners and between them and staff and a “chronic” lack of resources. The HRC is official monitor of how well the citizens treat each other.

Then there are the gaps in the handling by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) of the Christchurch house rebuilds, including, acting Customs boss Christine Stevenson’s report found, a lack of reliable data.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins came into office determined on sweeping changes. State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes also wants big changes.

Before Parliament is a Hipkins bill tightening controls on the sprawling range of Crown entities — including HNZ, NZTA, the HRC and EQC — that operate under boards appointed by ministers, with varying degrees of autonomy. Hughes will sign off future chief executive salaries and conditions and apply the public service code of conduct to Crown entity boards and board members.

The SSC is now cleaning up the HRC. But where was the SSC in the meth, NAIT and steel fiascos? Do these reflect wider management deficits?

For example, was HNZ too keen to serve ministers’ wish to be seen as tough on drugs?

There is a widely held view, including among public servants, that through two decades officials have focused too tightly on serving ministers, even at times anticipating and then serving up what their ministers might want to hear which Hipkins sums up as asking ministers: “What advice would you like?”

Critics say there is a wider duty: to keep in mind, and thus serve, the public’s broad and future interests and needs.

A low point was Hughes’ and Ministry of Social Development chief executive Brendan Boyle’s passing on to National ministers of Winston Peters’ personal superannuation details last year. Another was then Finance Minister Steven Joyce’s electioneering at the Treasury’s release of the pre-election economic and fiscal update which should be transparently independent.

This attitude spilled into deference to ministers or, worse, the party-political advisers in their offices, over Official Information Act requests.

Hipkins wants proactive release of cabinet advice, though one or two of his ministerial colleagues have not quite kept up.

Officials operate under the State Services Act which implies their role is to serve the state — that is, ministers. The last big reform in 1988 tightened that through contracts chief executives signed with ministers.

The SSC is drafting replacement legislation, a Public Service Act (perhaps, though unlikely, with three commissioners, not one, as now). This will aim to restate the wider public interest and lay out a set of principles and purposes. Hughes and Hipkins both talk of “stewardship”.

In a speech in March Hughes said when he talks about “public service and the spirit of service”, that “gets a hugely positive response as if I am articulating something that everyone believes in but no one talks about any more”.

One reason is that the public service is “sliced very thinly”, as Hipkins (who wants a “career public service”) puts it, into “silos” — multiple separate agencies, each with managerial independence and separate staffs.

For two decades public servants have agonised how to break down those silo walls and widen their focus from narrow “outputs” contracted with the minister and from Sir William English’s narrow “better public services” “targets” to complex “outcomes” requiring flexible, seamless working across portfolio boundaries.

Another big challenge is managing teeming data in the digital age to enable outcome-focused decisions and actions without compromising privacy.

A third, related to those two, is smart use of science advisers. The energetic, enterprising Sir Peter appointed academic experts part-time to some key departments. That, coupled with Treasury insistence on those experts’ tick-off for major new programmes, has helped sharpen some thinking.

Ideology is easier than science. Ministers’ ideology gave us charter schools and now their closure. Pressure groups, too, can bend ministers (and officials) away from science.

So, will the new Public Service Act give us “better public services”? Or will there still be the likes of meth scares, NAIT laxity and dud steel?

* This originally appeared on 12 June 2018 on the Radio NZ website, http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/359453/is-public-service-working-for-mps-or-the-public. The second and thirteenth paragraphs as printed here differ slightly from that version in the interests of accuracy.