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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

Zero-Basing the Public Service


Apiculture industry consultant and former top bureaucrat IAN FLETCHER gives his monthly “Views from Outside the Apiary” as a non-beekeeper but deep thinker on the plight of New Zealanders.

The Herald reports that National Party leader, Christopher Luxon, is attracted by the ACT Party idea that the Public Service should be ‘zero-based’. That would mean assuming that everything had to be justified afresh. Some of this is politics: National needs something to give ACT as a possible coalition partner, and the other idea floated, expunging references to the Treaty of Waitangi, might have seemed a bit rich for Luxon, given that getting Maori seats away from Labour is a vital task for National if they’re to lead a winning coalition.

Zero-basing the Public Service isn’t a new idea – it’s been done (or at least attempted) in other countries, quite often. It a bit of a charade: true zero basing would involve being prepared to consider whether to close schools and hospitals, empty the prisons, stop pensions and so on. All quite unthinkable. So the debate – if there is one - generally revolves around a few eye-catching cuts, or changes to departments. It might make ACT feel good, but if I was their leader, I’d want more as part of a coalition deal.

But the Public Service does seem a bit ramshackle. Beekeepers have horror stories about MPI (many seem sadly justified). COVID has exposed a health system that has struggled, an immigration service that has failed its own people, armed forces that have struggled with running MIQ and a pretty modest relief operation in Tonga at the same time, and a police service that has often seemed quite adrift. Worse could be ahead: M Bovis has exposed a biosecurity system which I think would struggle with a really serious disease incursion. An oil supply shock akin to the 1970s would trouble MBIE. So, what can we do?

Could beekeepers be among those who benefit from zero-base budgeting of Public Service departments, such as MPI?

Governments need to be both legitimate and effective. Legitimacy comes from democracy and elections. We’re not too bad there. But it’s effectiveness that’s the problem. The trick is to have a relatively competent public service that’s properly accountable. To get that, Ministers need to hire capable officials, organise them properly, and deploy them in effective ways. We fail at all three.

Firstly, senior officials are not capable, they’re acceptable, in that they are no threat to the Minister. That means they don’t challenge Ministers’ recycled ideas (often decades old and deeply discredited). Ministers like having people who do their bidding, rather than offer independent advice or effective delivery. At the heart of this is Chief Executive of each department, who is expected to be a sort of Superman or Woman, knowing the whole work of the organisation and somehow able in some impossible Herculean way to make it all work. It’s a recipe for failure, and blame, which engenders just the sort of anxious risk-averse behaviour that gets things wrong.

It’s self-reinforcing too: People lower down are anxious to please the boss, avoid risk, and thus see their skills and confidence wither over time. The solution: a return to a career service, with proper non-discriminatory selection and guided career development, so that it’s not just the CE but the whole team who are trained, capable and confident. We have a service now that does not have the supported development that would pay off over time. The public service will be around for a very long time; investment in making its longevity a virtue makes sense.

The current public service is too centralised (one point where I agree with Luxon). I’ve said previously that local government in New Zealand is too weak and needs reform and reinforcement. Using regional service to train and develop public servants would be helpful for everyone, especially if it was accompanied by more autonomy for local government. Strong local government would be innovative, enjoy local legitimacy and come to act as a counterweight to the centre.

A perennial temptation for governments is to rearrange the administrative furniture. The challenge is deceptively simple: to make the best use of skills, and to clearly define the tasks (hopefully with some connection to skills). We know from work done a century ago that the best way to husband scarce skills is to create real centres of excellence, where deep skills are maintained, and can be deployed to good effect. So, a single government legal service would be an obvious move, not having each department hire its own lawyers. The same for the finance, HR, media and other skills-based groups.

For other areas where knowledge must be applied, we know that teaching the science then the practice is the way (so you teach scientists patent law, not try teaching advanced physics to lawyers). Then create career ‘cones’ (the State Department word) for the broad areas of expertise: a biosecurity practice would be obvious, and familiar to many. We already do this for the tax department. Time to learn from IRD?

Ian Fletcher is a former chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission, biosecurity expert for the Queensland government and head of New Zealand’s security agency. 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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