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Is public service working for MPs or the public?

Colin James, Political Analyst

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

Housing New Zealand's meth testing caused mayhem and misery for a large number of tenants. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Housing New Zealand (HNZ) accepted junk "science" to needlessly cause 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 RNZ 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 the 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 bill from Mr Hipkins 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' wishes to be seen as tough on drugs?

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. Mr Hipkins sums it up as them 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 the leaking of deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters' superannuation overpayments details last year, which has led to a $400,000 lawsuit. Another was Treasury acquiescence in then-Finance Minister Steven Joyce's apparent electioneering at the release of the supposedly independent pre-election economic and fiscal update.

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

Mr 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. Mr Hughes and Mr 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 over how to break down those silo walls and widen their focus from narrow "outputs" contracted with the minister and from Sir Bill English's narrow "targets" for "better public services" 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 that those experts sign off on 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?

* Colin James is a political journalist with 45 years experience. He is a senior fellow of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

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