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Q+A Panel in repsonse to Steven Joyce IV

Q+A March 10, 2013


Hosted by SUSAN WOOD

In response to STEVEN JOYCE interview

SUSAN The panel – very good morning to you. Lovely to have you here. Dr Raymond Miller from Auckland University, Josie Pagani and Ian Wishart. Alright, the obvious question, and I’ll start with you, Ian, from that interview with Steven Joyce – why has it taken them six months to get some people together to deal with the backlog?

IAN WISHART – Publisher
Well, look, I might be sounding a bit facetious, but he did mention the Hobbit funding issue that the documents released a couple of weeks ago, and I actually think, you know, when that came out, people said, “Well, New Zealand’s in the thrall of Hollywood.” I think if you get to the bottom of the Novopay disaster, you’ll find it’s been designed by Walt Disney. It’s just absolutely appalling—

SUSAN Disney stuff usually works, though.

IAN (chuckles) It does, but Mr Mouse would not be proud of Novopay. I mean, seriously, it’s taken us this long to get on top of it, and we’re not on top of it. I run a company. We have 10,000 to 20,000 clients in our book. Now, Novopay is paying 84,000 people. But if I made the same sort of mistakes every month with our clients that Novopay is making on the scale, I would have ditched the software, ditched the system months ago. I would’ve gone to back-up plan.

JOSIE PAGANI – Former Labour Party Candidate
I think that’s the problem. It’s taken so long. We’re six months down the track. You imagine not being paid properly for six months. It’s a hell of long time.

SUSAN Oh, and the stress of not knowing if you're going to be paid, actually.

JOSIE Not knowing. And I don’t think anything he’s come up with now – I’m even not quite sure what it is, this sort of super-unit that will help—

SUSAN Well, they’re going to deal with the backlog, because apparently the pay system is going through sort of OK. They’ve got the error rate down to about 1% – it was 2% to start of – which is sort of acceptable. But there's a massive backlog sitting there, so that’s what they deal with.

JOSIE But the problem is you’ve got the schools themselves are covering that backlog at the moment, and what they’re asking for, and this is why I think none of this stuff today is actually going to appease teachers at all, because what they’re asking for is some sort of survival kit, whereby, at the moment, they’re paying out of their own operational budget when the salaries don’t come through. And so I’ve just been on a school camp with my kids, and the principal spent half the time on the phone to Novopay – and just sitting on the phone all the time, call waiting – and the other half taking kids to hospital with broken arms. But the point is—

SUSAN I’m not sure which is more productive, actually.

JOSIE You know, the principals are having to spend time doing this. All their auxiliary staff – so, it’s not even necessarily the teachers— But that operational budget is being spent to cover the loopholes, and that money should be going to my kids.

SUSAN Raymond, we have— I mean, the upset of the teachers is obvious. We’ve seen protests up and down the country. But more interestingly, the PPTA now are suing. Is that a sidebar to this? What sort of political pressure does it put on?

DR RAYMOND MILLER – Political Scientist
Well, it puts a lot of political pressure, because the government needs to look as if it’s dealing with this. I mean, what was refreshing about the minister’s comments this morning was a recognition that the buck does stop with the government. Last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of blaming operational matters on bureaucrats, on the provider. What we’re seeing now is the government saying, “Yes, this is a problem. We have to deal with it.”

SUSAN “I think about it every morning when I get out of bed,” was what he said. So he is taking responsibility.

RAYMOND Exactly. He’s Mr Fix-It, as you say, and the thing is when the government signed off on this last June, there were reportedly 147 known defects, and three ministers signed up to it. It hadn’t been properly trialled. You know, it’d been four years in the making and these problems could have been predicted.

JOSIE Actually, that’s the big question. I hope that this inquiry will look at the lack of ministerial oversight, because clearly you had three ministers signing off, as you say, when the errors were there. You had officials at some point – I think twice in the process – saying to Talent2, “We might want to quit, because you're not reaching your deadlines.” So why not disclose the contract? Let’s see what the contract said between Novopay and the ministry.

SUSAN I’m sure there's a lot of OIAs on that one. Interestingly, I think Datacom – we’ve just learnt that this morning that Datacom has got something in with the government on it, so obviously a B plan or perhaps a better plan underway.

IAN Yeah, well, I think the Novopay is not an isolated incident. Look at INCIS. Look at a whole range of government procurement deals. It seems the bureaucracy gets led astray like Pinocchio by a bunch of IT wideboys, and we end up with these disasters. And it happens in the defence system as well. There's got to be a change in our culture, whereby these things are put through much more rigorous scrutiny. As Raymond says, these systems were not properly tested. There was no plan B. In private enterprise, we have to have a plan B. If you put new software in place, you have to have a back-up.

SUSAN Couldn’t run a company that way. Let’s get onto— Sorry, Raymond. I want to get onto SkyCity, because we’ve got a couple of quick things. A deal not at any price. Interesting.

RAYMOND A deal not at any price, and that is interesting. But again it gets to a point that Ian has been making, which is really we’re a small and intimate society and there's a lot of informality in the way that decisions are made in Wellington. It’s a very congenial elite. There's a lot of cross-over between politicians and business and company directors and lobbyists and so on.

SUSAN They’re all in the Koru Lounge at Wellington at 5 o’clock.

RAYMOND That’s exactly right, and the problem with that is while informality is all very well, you’ve got to have due process, and this is where this has fundamentally failed is that there was no due process. And, really, if we want to take transparency and accountability really seriously, we’ve got to be much more measured in the way that we go about dealing with this procurement issue.

JOSIE I think that’s right, and when you are a small country, things like access to information for people who are tendering for a government contract – that’s open to all sorts of corruption, and I think it was Rod Oram who said recently, “This is no way to run a country.” You cannot run a country like this.

SUSAN Some of that I think is John Key’s style in terms of he’s a decision-maker, he’s used to doing deals, Ian, and yet we’ve seen that work really well for him in South America. We’ve got a Colombian president who’s gone way further on trade. He’s saying, “Yep, let’s do a deal. Let’s get a free-trade deal.” So it does work on some levels.

IAN With all due respect to the international economy, there's a lot of countries that operate much shadier business practices and legislation than we have. I think the problem that we have here in New Zealand is that we do have to sort of move beyond the sort of parish pump way of doing business. We do have to have systems with integrity and a process that’s a level playing field and make sure that things are tested. This is immense amounts of taxpayers’ money. This is teachers’ money, teachers’ time, principals’ time. This is time that’s not going to us the taxpayer or us our kids. This is hurting us.

JOSIE But just to come back to that, though – I mean, you imagine now at Transmission Gully in Wellington, for example, you're tendering for that. The message to private companies out there is don’t go through the formal channels. Take John Key out for dinner. You know, do a little bit of back-room dealing.

SUSAN Is that too far, Raymond? The last word.

RAYMOND Well, it’s something immensely attractive about someone who’s prepared to be a kind of travelling salesman and do all of these things. But on the other hand, Helen Clark was very sensible about the need for due process, and I think while sometimes this can create problems, nevertheless, I think it’s important.


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