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Working together for a strong public service

Working together for a strong public service

Trevor Mallard Speech to the annual conference of the PSA, Student Union Building, Victoria University

PSA executive board members, national secretaries, and delegates, thank you for inviting me to address your conference.

There are a number of matters that I would like to cover this afternoon. I am, however, mindful of the fact the Prime Minister will be giving an address at your 90th birthday celebrations this evening, and will go into a lot more detail on some of these subjects.

I would like to start by talking about Partnership for Quality because it is the cornerstone of the government’s relationship with the PSA.

The PSA first promoted the Partnership for Quality concept in the late 1990s. This was a bold move, given the context of the times.

We had a right-wing government that had enacted the employment contracts legislation - legislation that was founded on a pretence that unions did not exist.

We had a government that seemed determined to make that pretence a reality. And, we had a government that regarded the complaints and opposition from unions and employees as evidence that its policies were working.

I think it was also fair to say that the PSA’s Partnership for Quality initiative was controversial within the union movement, and that most state sector employers were initially uninterested.

To a certain extent that was understandable, given the fact that just about everybody – the then government, the unions, employers generally – was locked in conflict.

It was good that the PSA took leadership on this issue, and despite the difficulties, the Partnership for Quality has been a success for both the government and for the PSA and its members.

For example, more constructive collective bargaining has occurred – there are higher ratification levels and quicker settlements.

And I sense that elsewhere the tide is now turning, and the value of partnership is becoming more clear. Others are becoming interested in the concept and are seeing the possibilities of meaningful engagement. As part of the Partnership for Quality Agreement, the PSA and my officials are currently working on a project to scope options for promoting partnership generally in the state sector and in the wider economy.

The PSA and government officials are exploring ways to strengthen Partnership for Quality in the public service. And I will be promoting the concept at every opportunity amongst state sector employers, unions, and other interested parties.

For my part, I have enjoyed working with the PSA towards what we both see as an important goal – developing a strong, modern, innovative public service that delivers quality outcomes for all New Zealanders.

That has been, and remains, a great basis for a relationship.

Has it all been plain sailing? Of course it hasn’t. You are a union, and you must maintain your independence. Sometimes you will have interests and aspirations that are different to mine and we will disagree.

I respect the PSA’s right to have an alternative view. What is important, is that even if we do have alternative viewpoints, we can work through them constructively to get to the best solutions for everyone concerned.

When I became Minister of State Services, I had several concerns regarding the sorry state of the public service.

The public service had become run down. The tight fiscal environment of the 1990s was beginning to bite into public service capability.

Over the last two to three years in particular, I’ve been working with the PSA to counter that.

We have begun to address significant capability problems in specific areas.

First, some public service wage rates fell behind the market during the 1990s. Second, there was insufficient staff in some areas of the public service.

And third, in some departments infrastructure had been run down and PSA members lacked the tools to do their jobs effectively.

I am not going to pretend that I have a magic wand to solve these issues overnight.

Handing out bucket loads of money would be imprudent, unfair to the taxpayer, and might not actually address the real problems.

What I can promise is that I will work in partnership with the PSA to solve these issues over time.

This government is focussed on building capability in our public services rather than on dishing out bonus payments and redundancy cheques.

An annual survey I will be releasing in full in a few weeks will show we have made progress in closing pay gaps between the public service and other parts of the economy.

We have also increased the size of the permanent public service workforce by around 15 per cent since we came to office.

It shows the public service employs high proportions of women, Maori, Pacific peoples and people with disabilities. We have made good progress in moving women and Maori into senior management roles, although more remains to be done.

Jobs in the public service are based around stable, secure employment relationships.

Around 40 per cent of people working in permanent jobs in public service departments today are projected to still be working for that department in ten years time.

Even more will spend long periods working in more than one department over their public service career.

Turnover rates for permanent staff have been at steady, moderate levels for several years now, and we have reduced the reliance on short-term contractors.

Redundancy levels are also at their lowest level since data collection began in 1991.

We have strengthened collective bargaining in the public service through the Employment Relations Act.

Around 58 per cent of public servants are union members (compared with 22 per cent of all employees in the labour force) and nearly all of these are covered by collective agreements.

As a government we recognise that unions have a valuable role in upholding worker interests. Unions provide an important counterweight to the inherent inequality of bargaining power between the individual employee and their employer.

Our government has eased the harsh fiscal approach adopted during the 1990s. We are committed to working sensibly and steadily to address resourcing problems over time and in a way that is fair to both public service employees and to taxpayers.

We are both winning from the positive solutions that are emerging out of our partnership. One example is how the Department of Corrections and the PSA worked successfully together to identify capability issues surrounding probation officers.

As a result, the Department of Corrections was then able to plan for a funding path over three years to address those issues. This involved additional funding to employ more probation officers, and additional funding for sustained “above average” wage increases for probation officers over a three-year period.

The improvement in relationships is striking, to use a pun. Three years ago, relationships were difficult, money was short, strike action was taken, and the ratification process for the collective agreement had to be repeated before a small majority of PSA members voted in favour of a settlement.

This year negotiations were settled quickly and in a positive atmosphere. That meant everyone was quickly back doing what they do best – a good job on behalf of the taxpayer. This all reflects a lot of hard work and goodwill on the part of both the PSA and the Department of Corrections.

The Tripartite Forum has recently begun to engage on long term planning relating to public service capability, resources and the budget process. The Tripartite Forum allows myself as Minister of State Services, public service chief executives, and the PSA secretariat to meet to discuss major issues and to explore solutions.

Recently, we discussed how to develop new and better processes for engaging over budget issues, and to look at longer term planning regarding government spending in the public service.

Both the government and the PSA have shared a concern regarding some of the adverse effects of changes in the public service during the late 1980s and 1990s.

Problems included a tendency for departments to be so focussed on their own issues that it became difficult to get them to work outside their silos and achieve effective outcomes on an “across departments” basis.

Another problem was the apparent breakdown of the public service wide career structure, and the impact this had on “whole of government” activities and indeed on the ability of the public service to grow its leadership.

As a result, the government initiated the Review of the Centre process. The PSA participated actively in this process, and your contribution continues to be valuable.

The process itself has helped to break down barriers and change attitudes, as increasing numbers of public service managers interact on project teams and working parties with PSA representatives.

This evening, the Prime Minister will be addressing your conference, and she and your president, Ian Bamber, will be signing a renewal of the Partnership for Quality Agreement.

The Prime Minister is signing the agreement for two important reasons.

First, it signifies the shared commitment by the government and the PSA to develop a strong, modern and innovative public service that is highly successful for both citizens and public service employees. Second, it signifies the importance that our government attributes to its relationship with the PSA.

As Minister of State Services, I also have a particular interest in the theme of your conference – the future of work. I look forward to receiving a report from the PSA following your conference, and I’ll be interested in your views on the best way forward. I’m sure that chief executives on the Tripartite Forum will be equally keen to hear what your conference comes up with.

Thank you for this opportunity to address your conference. Best wishes for the remainder of the conference.

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