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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

The Withering Away of the State


The public service has been a key talking point for political parties in the run up to the national election this month. Ian Fletcher has sat atop various public service departments across several countries. He weighs in on an issue that is far more complex than some politicians are making out.

Ian Fletcher.

Classical Marxism talked of the ‘withering away of the State' as socialism inevitably advanced (the actual phrase is from Engels, and is a translation from German). But the idea was common to the writing of Marx and Lenin too. Looking around the world, it’s an idea that hasn’t really worked out (to say the least). Yet it’s an idea that seems to resonate in New Zealand.

In our current election, both National and Act talk boastfully about the size of the cuts they will make to the public service. No one is seriously defending the public service (and anyone who reads what I write will know I think there’s a lot wrong with it). But – unless National and Act are really Marxist – then talk of big cuts is just showing off, and avoids the hard questions that need to be asked about the way the public service should work.

Both National and ACT political parties are promising to cut public sector jobs should they gain office, but that just avoids the hard questions that need to be asked, says Ian Fletcher.

Any government needs a public service to actually do stuff, to implement policies, create and enforce laws, look after beneficiaries, manage the health and education systems and so on. So just cutting the public service thoughtlessly harms the community. It’s as sensible as a runner asking for shorter legs. It also assumes all public servants are equal – comparing a statistician to a call centre worker. Both are valuable, but in different ways to different people. Try explaining why one should stay and the other go?

But there are obviously things that need fixing. What should the public service look like? Here, it can be good to think about capability and capacity. Capability is the ability to understand and solve problems. Capacity is having enough people or resources to make solutions work at the scale needed to be meaningful, without dropping other important jobs. One without the other is useless.

What does that mean for New Zealand? Some jobs need a combination of judgement and efficiency (managing benefits, collecting most taxes, issuing most visas, managing most of the stuff going through the courts). Here we need folk, probably supported by AI and other online and self-help systems, who can manage cases fairly and consistently, and who know when to raise their hand and escalate the difficult cases. An incoming government should think about getting the right people, supporting them for long-term careers that don’t change too much, and buying the IT systems to give them and their customers the best support.

Over time, if this works, we should expect staff numbers to fall, productivity to rise, and customer/taxpayer satisfaction to be high. This is not to underestimate these jobs: anyone who has sat for a couple of hours listening to callers in a government call centre (I’ve done it in the UK and Australia) knows that it takes a lot of skill, empathy and humanity to deal fairly and calmly with our fellow citizens in need, or even just doing business. And this is core work for the public service. Slash and burn by an incoming government is just what they don’t need.

Other people are needed to help politicians deal with the new, unexpected or just complicated problems governments face. Everything from tax policy to disaster response. Governments face complex trade-offs, a shifting media landscape, and “events, dear boy, events” as Harold McMillan (then UK Prime Minister) replied when asked what would blow a government off course. The key point here is that experience and acquired skill helps: politicians are perhaps professionals at politics, but they’re amateurs at actual government. As taxpayers we all get a better deal if we ensure they are supported by skilled professionals.

That means our public service also needs a group of people who can tackle a range of complex problems, and are organised flexibly enough to be responsive. This isn’t an argument for ‘generalists’ or for gifted amateurs. It means having people with proper skills – lawyers, statisticians, engineers, biologists, climatologists and so on, and making sure their skills are current, and they can be used effectively.

Two things follow from that which go against New Zealand’s current public service system and culture. The first is the erroneous belief that a single Chief Executive can be responsible for a whole department. It’s fanciful, magical thinking. The actual result is that Chief Executives don’t really know what’s going on, and they either take credit for others’ work (when things go well), or become the fall guy or girl (when things go wrong). I’ve been a public sector Chief Executive in three countries, and believe me, this is the truth. We need genuinely collective management of complex organisations and tasks.

The second erroneous belief is that you can just appoint people to jobs without really investing in their long-term career and skills. For better or worse, the public service should be a career service with centralised career management.

Of course, this all means more middle managers. So, let’s also deal with that myth. Middle managers make the coordinating decisions and hold the institutional memory that knits any organisation together over time. Eliminating them (as is happening is Te Whatu Ora now) is like giving yourself a lobotomy. You will forget stuff. Things will go wrong. Just watch. Middle management is also the place where more senior managers get trained and learn, in a supportive environment. It takes time.

Public services commissioner Peter Hughes will depart the role in February and Ian Fletcher believes the choice of his replacement will be the most consequential decision of the incoming government.

All this is an argument to reform the public service, not just slash it. Marx and Co were wrong: the state won’t wither away, but it can shrivel into incompetence. A good public service makes any government more effective, delivers routine services humanely, and responds to the unexpected effectively. That means the most consequential single decision for the new Government will be the appointment of the new Public Service Commissioner (the job comes vacant in February). It’s a decision that won’t get anywhere near the scrutiny it deserves.

And if I were the new Commissioner, where would I start? Biosecurity. Our biggest point of exposure. Beekeepers are in the front line. Just watch.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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