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PSA Congress - Trevor Mallard Speech

30 May 2002

Hon Trevor Mallard

Speech Notes


PSA Congress

Good morning

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today.

I want to start by looking back over the last two and a half years and share my views on where we were then, and on how far we have come.

Two years ago, in May 2000, I had just signed the “Partnership for Quality” agreement with the Public Service Association.

During that time the Employment Relations Bill was before Parliament. Some employer and political groups were conducting a major campaign against the bill. There were a number of criticisms.

Some predicted that, if the bill was passed, employers would be unable to stay in business. That rogue unions would unleash industrial mayhem. That poverty would descend on us.

Of course, none of these things actually came to pass.

So then, why did some people have this reaction? In a nutshell, because the Employment Relations Bill represented a major cultural change. The 1990s was the era of the Employment Contracts Act. The Contracts Act was based on the concept of establishing and enforcing contractual rights.

The Contracts Act tolerated the presence of unions as bargaining agents, but it did not recognise any role for them. There was no concept of an employment “relationship”. Employees were just another expense. Purchasing labour was like paying rent.

In the Contracts Act era, there was a lot of “take it or leave it” bargaining. In the State sector, there were many instances of collective agreements remaining unsettled.

The Employment Relations Act takes quite a different approach. It recognises that employment arrangements are, in fact, relationships. Rather than promoting the strict enforcement of legal rights against each other, the emphasis is on employers and employees resolving employment relationship problems.

The reason why I look back to these past events is to get an insight into both where we have come from, and where we are headed.

What I see is that the “relationship” approach represents a significant culture change. And if the “relationship” concept is a significant culture change, a “partnership” concept is a radical culture change. In fact, very radical.

Indeed, the Partnership for Quality agreement recognised the extent of this change. The agreement specifically recognised that the move to a partnership culture will require “a radical change in attitudes and approaches”.

And that culture change was never going to be brought about merely by attaching signatures to a piece of paper. When the PSA and the Government signed the Partnership for Quality agreement in May 2000, we had not arrived at a destination. Rather, we were embarking on a journey.

Overall, I am very pleased with our progress on that journey. A number of government departments and ministries now have a Partnership for Quality agreement with the PSA in place. Different agencies are in a variety of places on developing the actual relationship. Attitudes have shifted considerably. Radically in some cases.

Some have developed a significant level of trust and have created a culture where discussions with union delegates and organisers happen routinely.

Some have evolved their relationship to the point that their whole approach to each other is based on joint problem solving. Gone are the days of demands being hurled back and forth across a table, with the best outcome being a compromise that “we can both live with”.

Instead, management and union come together to define issues and to explore solutions that meet the needs of both. It seems to me that solutions jointly arrived at provide the basis for positive future relationships. That is far better than compromise.

Another way of working positively together is being developed through the Tripartite Forum. The forum was established in November 2000, on the initiative of the PSA, as a means of increasing the understanding of the Partnership for Quality Agreement between the Government and the PSA.

The forum brings together chief executives, Ministers, and the PSA to discuss issues that apply across the entire Public Service. Importantly, the forum acts as a meeting place for ideas, allowing informal discussions to take place between members. Its most recent meeting was in September, when the issue of superannuation was discussed.

I want to acknowledge the very positive developments under the Partnership for Quality, because I think it is important that the PSA contribution to positive working relationships be acknowledged. The PSA’s promotion of “a different way of doing things” has been both visionary and courageous.

It is visionary because it is a break from the past. It is a paradigm shift.

It is courageous because promoting a new approach carries with it a risk. It is about accepting that the new approach will sometimes fail.

It is far easier and safer to keep close control on things. To be risk averse, and to avoid mistakes.

So, thank you for your vision.

We have progressed some distance on the journey that we began when we signed the Partnership for Quality agreement two years ago. But, as with any culture change, progress has been uneven.

Predictably, State sector agencies have not, en mass, transformed their employment relations philosophies and practices.

Some government agencies have adapted quickly to the Employment Relations Act environment. Some will take time a little more time to evolve their thinking. Others will stick resolutely to their existing policies and practices. Indeed, we anticipated this range of reactions in May 2000.

And in fact, the variation in reactions is not restricted to organisations as a whole. Reactions will also vary greatly amongst individuals.

I am sure that you have faced similar issues within the PSA. Some of your existing members are no doubt uncomfortable with the new approach.

What this all means is that there is a significant debate occurring in the Public Service. It is happening within the PSA and it is happening within other unions. There are a range of views and a range of reactions.

I am confident that this debate will consolidate positive changes in attitudes over time. Meanwhile, there will inevitably be some tensions both within organisations and between some organisations and unions. I take the view that debate, and the tensions it creates, are positive things. That is how change occurs.

We will learn both from instances where the partnership has worked well, and from instances where it has not. In fact, we may even learn more from the latter. And, it is important that we do learn as much as we can from our experiences to date.

Accordingly, I have agreed to a PSA proposal for an independently conducted review of the Partnership for Quality. This review will take a case study approach, focusing on how the Partnership for Quality has actually worked in a few selected agencies.

I expect the review to be conducted and completed prior to the end of 2002. Under the partnership approach, the review will be commissioned jointly by the SSC and the PSA.

The Partnership for Quality is, of course, very much focused on constructing a quality public service. The Government is currently addressing this issue through the various initiatives that have come out of the Review of the Centre process.

You may recall that the Government - or at least the Labour Party - had indicated some concerns about the Public Service prior to being elected. We said that we wanted to change the narrow focus on efficiency and financial performance in favour of a greater emphasis on effectiveness, quality and service.

We have made tangible progress on rebuilding the capability of the Public Service over the last two years. Staff numbers have increased by nearly 900 full-time equivalents since this Government took office in 1999.

We also set up an advisory committee to review the State sector. Your secretary, Paul Cochrane, was part of that advisory committee. One notable feature was that the review committee did not focus on constitutional, structural, or management arrangements. Rather, it started by looking at the perspectives and needs of the various players in the system.

Citizens, communities and businesses want more effective, accessible, and responsive services.

Public Service managers and staff want satisfying work and good management. They also want the opportunity to make a difference.

Lastly, Ministers want it to be easier to make things happen. To see more flexibility and innovation. To see less risk aversion. A greater inclination to try new things. A little more risk taking.

The committee’s report, the “Review of the Centre’, found that most of the fundamentals of the Public Service were sound but there was significant scope for improvement. They recommended close to 30 initiatives.

The State Services Commissioner has now formed a Change Implementation Advisory Group to assist with the implementation of the Review of the Centre initiatives.

The Review of the Centre work programme consists of a variety of projects within four work streams:

- The “integrated service delivery” work stream will look at issues such as how agencies can work more closely together, regional co-ordination, and establishing circuit breaker teams to tackle hard problems.

- The “structures and alignment” work stream will look at accountability arrangements for the public service and wider state sector, including the potential for multiple funding arrangements.

- The “central agency performance” work stream will focus on the role of central agencies, and on innovation.

- The “people and culture” work stream will perhaps be of the most interest to PSA representatives. This work stream will be concerned with developing an overarching human resource framework, enhancing public sector standards and qualifications, and the development of senior leadership.

A large cross section of people from the Public Service will be involved in advancing the various projects in the work streams. This is an important factor. We cannot expect central agencies - the State Services Commission, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Treasury - to give us all the insights into delivery of services to citizens and communities.

Those sort of insights must be provided from within operational agencies. Agencies that actually deliver the services. And which have an existence outside the Wellington central business district. Perhaps those are the perspectives and insights that have been not been given sufficient attention in the past.

The PSA will have a valuable role to play in the Review of the Centre process. It has a representative on the advisory group, and will be involved in some of the work streams. I am also aware that the PSA has made a particularly valuable contribution to preliminary work on the overarching human resource framework.

I look forward to a continued high-level contribution as the Review of the Centre process continues.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the work that the PSA is doing on delegate development. So far, unit standards have been developed and you’ll soon have registered a national certificate in employment relations. I know that you have utilised the Employment Relations Education Fund for this work.

Nearly 300 delegates have benefited through completing delegate training courses in the last six months.

I think that the skills that staff can pick up through training like this not only helps them in their union work, but can also contribute to their overall development - both professional and personal.

Congratulations for this progress you are making in this area.

Thank you for having me to speak today and my best wishes for the remainder of your congress.

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