Bryce Edwards: Problems in the public service

Bryce Edwards: Problems in the public service

There is a lot of dissatisfaction at the moment with the “machinery of government” – the government departments, officials, and general bureaucracy that operates behind the scenes to make public services work and helps govern the country. And the criticism has been coming from all directions. Increasingly there are calls for a shakeup or re-examination of how this machinery is working, and the new government seems particularly keen to carry out reforms to fix what they perceive are some big problems. This might end up being one of Jacinda Ardern’s promised areas of “transformation”, but the first task is to work out what’s wrong with the system.

Politicisation and subservience in the public service

For many years now, there have been concerns that officials working in government agencies have become far too subservient to government ministers. This isn’t how the machinery of government is supposed to work – our system of government is based on officials needing to have a degree of independence from the government of the day. Yet, again and again, under National and Labour governments, there have been stories of the independence of officials declining, and of subservience increasing. Many critics label this as the “politicisation” of public servants – because the people in those roles are having to serve the “politics of the day” rather than the wider interests of society.

The latest such allegation of an attempt to decrease the autonomy of an official, concerns a voicemail message left by the Minister of Health, David Clark, on the phone of a district health board chairman who was causing problems for the government with his openness about problems in a hospital – see: Health Minister David Clark tried to gag public servants, according to National MP. The allegation is that the Health Minister was attempting to bribe an official in order to gain their subservience.

For the latest on this, see today’s article by Lucy Bennett: Health Minister David Clark ‘said sorry’ to Counties Manukau DHB chairman Rabin Rabindran over Middlemore Hospital saga, correspondence shows.

Regardless of the truth or otherwise of this particular allegation, there are plenty of other very worrying examples in recent years. Possibly the most infamous is the case of Ministry of Social Development senior officials passing the details of Winston Peters’ superannuation overpayment onto National government ministers. This all occurred in last year’s election campaign, during which the embarrassing information about Peters was also leaked to the media, creating a scandal, and leading to Peters currently suing the government.

The supply of the information on Peters was made under the highly-problematic “no surprises” rule, which officials have come to interpret, it seems, as the need to provide ministers with any information that might have an impact on the political scene. The evolution of the “no surprises” rule from being “perfectly sensible” to the highly-political “nadir” last year is explained very well by Matthew Hooton in his column on Friday – see: Good may come from Peters’ lawsuit.

Hooton argues that the “no surprises” rule has contributed to shifting public servants into a more subservient position, and helped turned the machinery of state into part of the political weaponry of the politicians in power. He hopes that Peters’ lawsuit might force an end to this practice.

Last week, Colin James also asked: Is public service working for MPs or the public? He explains: “There is a widely held view, including among public servants, that officials in the past two decades have focused too tightly on serving ministers, even at times anticipating and then serving up what their ministers might want to hear.” And the new Minister of State Services, Chris Hipkins, is cited as summing up what officials have come to ask ministers: “What advice would you like?”

James points to a number of recent failures in government agencies, and connects these with the subservience of officials. For example, in terms of Housing New Zealand’s fiasco over meth testing in state houses, he asks: “was HNZ too keen to serve ministers’ wishes to be seen as tough on drugs?”

But the question about politicisation of the public service was best asked in another column by Colin James from late last year: Has service to the public become servility to ministers? He explains that the bureaucrats are supposed to be the servants of the public rather than just the politicians: “For decades it has been misnamed the ‘state’ service. That implies officials serve only ministers, who are the state executives, not also the public who in a democracy are supposed to be the ultimate masters and mistresses. The public’s interests range wider than ministers’ purview and stretch forward into the future. Part of officials’ job is to keep that wider, longer-term perspective in front of ministers while, of course, carrying out ministers’ lawful instructions.”

James pinpoints one of the problems in the machinery of government: “One driver of change has been the appointment of political advisers in ministers’ offices. They filter communications to ministers and even presume to tell officials, including chief executives, what to do. Some later become MPs. These interlopers vet what should be departments’, not ministers’, business, including Official Information Act requests.”

About the same time as James’ column was published, political scientists Richard Shaw and Chris Eichbaum published their research into public servants’ views about the role of these political advisers in ministers’ offices. This concluded that there was “a marked increase in concern being expressed by senior public servants about the extent to which governments are increasingly unwilling to take free and frank advice” – see RNZ’s Free and frank? Not so much. According to their research, “Public servants feel less able to speak freely in an increasingly politicised Beehive”.

Chris Eichbaum has also written a useful explainer about why New Zealand has “a constitutionally independent public service tasked with providing free, frank and comprehensive advice to the government of the day” – see: When a problem shared is a problem doubled.

Too much bureaucratisation

In strong contrast to the criticisms about the politicisation of the public service, and the complaint that officials are now too deferential to their political masters, some believe that the bureaucracy is not actually responsive enough to the government. This is, of course, a long running criticism of bureaucracy – that the will of the elected politicians is being thwarted by overly complex processes, paperwork, and self-interested public servants.

The latest high-profile version of this is Shane Jones’ argument that government ministers should directly hire and fire some senior government officials, and those officials should simply have the responsibility to implement the ministers’ wishes. This was best reported last month in Hamish Rutherford’s article, NZ First’s Shane Jones wants ministers to have more power over public sector.

Essentially, Jones was proposing a furthering of the politicisation process – to make bureaucrats less independent and neutral, and more the tools of the politicians in power. Unsurprisingly, this drew plenty of criticism. One of best critiques was a Dominion Post editorial, Shane Jones’ plans for ‘treacle-ridden’ public service won’t stick.

This argued that good governance was worth protecting: “There are good reasons for that independence, and it is has served Westminster-style democracies well. Good government needs not only to get things done, but to be seen to do it with integrity and transparency. Public servants need to be free to offer their advice without fear or favour”.

It pointed to the risk of greater corruption seeping into the system – as Jones’ proposal “could easily take us down the path to the cronyism and pork-barrel politics that we rightly deplore in the United States. New Zealand’s international reputation for low levels of government corruption is one that should be vigorously defended.” And related to this, it argued that Jones’ own Provincial Growth Fund was the type of programme most in need of the cautious scrutiny and care that the public service provides: “The $3 billion on offer from Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund between now and 2020 – that’s $20 million a week for the entire term of this Government – offers myriad opportunities for wasted money and political embarrassment.”

Political commentator John Armstrong made the same argument, suggesting a certain irony in Jones being the person proposing fewer safeguards: “Jones’ over-inflated confidence in his abilities makes him someone who not infrequently needs saving from himself. He is one minister who is in much need of free and frank advice. Staffing his Beehive with lackeys, cronies and yes-men and women would likely result in Jones making more appalling decisions” – see his excellent column, Shane Jones needs to explain worth of political neutrality sacrifice if he wants to be taken seriously.

Armstrong has a very strong view about Jones’ agenda for the public service: “Such clean-outs don’t enhance political neutrality. Depending on the replacements, they can end up only weakening it even further. Jones’ denunciation of senior public servants who cannot answer back is little short of despicable.”

But not everyone disagreed with Jones. Matthew Hooton has written a column that is highly critical of the ethos and competency of the “Wellington bureaucracy”, suggesting that Jones is right to say that Ministers should be able to sack senior officials if they don’t adequately follow the directions given by their political masters – see: Budget must show cultural change.

Hooton says government agencies “have become shockingly risk-averse and slow.” In his view, the bureaucrats operate more out of self-interest than fulfilling the public good: “Wellington bureaucrats [are] terrified of trying anything new for fear it might fail and hamper their careers. Doing nothing even mildly innovative is the best way to protect oneself in Wellington’s Bowen Triangle.”

This type of critique was backed up by a strongly worded column in the Herald by John Tamihere, who questions the accountability of senior officials – see: I’ve had it up to here with NZ’s empire of bureaucrats. Talking about his own experience as an MP, minister, and running community organisations, Tamihere says the current public service system is “bankrupt”.

To give a sense of the importance of the issue, Tamihere highlights some of the numbers involved: “There is a total of 28 government departments/ministries that have 55,216 FTEs and a budget of $78.8 billion. If your mind is not boggling after looking at those numbers, there is something seriously wrong. Those departments are actually non-contestable monopolies. That is why deep and searching scrutiny must prevail.”

But then, for an entirely different take on the issue, former government minister Peter Dunne argues that, under National, officials were used more collaboratively and now Labour has pushed them further away from the policy-making process – see: Sidelining officials could hurt Labour. He says that “Under this Government, a clear message is being sent that ministers make the decisions, not bureaucrats.”

Finally, last week Colmar Brunton released its Public Sector Reputation Index for 2018, which showed that 41 per cent of New Zealanders say that they trust the public service, compared to only 8 per cent who don’t. This compares very well to 27 per cent said who have trust in Parliament, and 29 per cent who don’t. For more on this and other indicators of how the public is feeling about politicians and public servants, see my Newsroom column, Our revival of trust in Government.