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Function Versus Form: Public Service Cuts

The National-led coalition government is undertaking a brutal assault on the public service by implementing blunt arbitrary cuts on public service staffing. The cuts are intended to be up to 7.5% but in some ministries and departments it could be higher.

Its official justification is that there is too much ‘fat’ in the public service. Consequently, by getting rid of the ‘fat’, the public service will, ipso facto, become more efficient.

Initial announcements have been made for the Ministries of Primary Industry and Health. The latter looks like around 25%. Reportedly the Ministry of Pacific Peoples could be up to 40%.

Cost to human lives and Wellington economy

Much of the reaction has rightly been on the human aspect; the effects of job losses where future employment opportunities are, at best, limited.

This will be devastating for many public servants and their families. It makes the soundbite response of ACT leader and cabinet minister David Seymour that these announced cuts are “good” particularly cruel.

Newshub described his response as “dancing on the graves” of the livelihoods of these affected public servants (21 March): Dancing on the graves of public servants livelihood.       

Another reaction, again understandable, is the impact on Wellington’s economy. As Aotearoa New Zealand’s capital it is the centre of the public service.

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Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau is seriously concerned (as is the local Chamber of Commerce) and plans to raise this directly with Prime Minister Chris Luxon and other relevant ministers as reported by Radio New Zealand (27 March): Wellington mayor plans to raise concerns with government ministers

Form before function!

As important as these two issues are, there is a further wider one that deserves special consideration. It is a golden rule of political and organisational decision-making that the poorer the process, the worse the outcome is likely to be.

The Government’s public service cuts are shaping up to be arbitrary ‘slash-and-burn’ with a very blunt instrument. It centres on an across-the-board percentage without either being evidence-based or consideration of the impact on existing functions.

It is a fundamental ABC of decision-making, especially that which leads to some form of restructuring, that function comes before form.

The more this approach is taken, the better and more sustainable the outcome. When the reverse applies, form comes before function, the poorer and unsustainability of the outcome.

In 2022 the former Labour government committed the cardinal error of putting form before function in its disastrous restructuring of  the health system. Today New Zealanders are reaping the consequences of that error.

Now the National-led coalition government is repeating the same error with these public service cuts.

In the context of the impact on trade, the risks of putting form before function are well outlined by Public Service Association National Secretary Duane Leo in a media release on the planned cuts to the Ministry of Primary Industries (21 March): Cuts huge risk to primary sector exports.

Demonising false ‘back office to frontline’ narrative

The government is rationalising its cuts by arguing that they are shifting resources from the ‘back office’ to the ‘frontline’.

To the extent that that these two terms have validity it is a false narrative that also cruelly demonises the former. This is by devaluing what they do because they are scapegoated as the problem; as ‘fat in the system’.

The reality is that that the ‘back office’ and ‘frontline’ functions are invariably integrated with each other. The latter depends on the former; the more those in the ‘back office’ can do their jobs, the better those on the frontline are able to do theirs.

New Zealand’s health system experience had a negative experience of this false narrative under the previous National-led government (2008-17).

In the lead up to the 2008 general election, National’s health spokesperson Tony Ryall campaigned on shifting resources from the ‘back office’ to the clinical frontline in public hospitals.

Once he became health minister he enacted this slogan by imposing an arbitrary cap on so-called back office positions. This proved to be both demonising for these particular employees and counter-productive.

These ‘back office’ positions position were closely integrated with the work of the clinical frontline, from booking and secretarial staff to operational managers.

The ‘cap’ not only made them victims of a political ‘blame culture’. It also made the work of health professionals more difficult. The latter would much rather have been underpaid health professionals than overpaid secretaries.

It also did nothing to relieve the pressure on hospital based health professionals. Instead it worsened by the interconnected increasing both acute admissions and workforce shortages. A function before form approach could have prevented this.

Today there is an obvious example of this in the police force. The Police have been by required to government to make an artificial distinction between ‘back office’ and frontline.

The ‘back office’ includes those non-sworn staff who take and prepare reports of non-emergency situations either online or by 105 calls. These reports are then forwarded on to police officers.

Their work is highly integrated with the work of police officers. Imposing staff cuts on 105 operators, even if only by attrition, would only serve to make police officer work much more difficult.

Does Chris Luxon’s government really want to do this to an already overworked police force strongly tempted by superior working conditions in Australia? Have I just asked a rhetorical question? Again this comes from a form before function approach.

What the government should have done

Another ABC is that improving processes is the most effective way of achieving sustainable systems improvement, including cost effectiveness.

This experience includes New Zealand’s health system when the overall leadership culture was supportive of it.

Process improvement has two underlying principles. The first principle is that function should always come before form. Those who start from this premise are more likely to succeed; those who don’t are more likely to fail.

The second principle is that those who do the job, or work alongside them, generally know best how to improve the job.

This is where the greatest experience and expertise rests. It is also where the greatest interest and commitment to process improvement resides.

In the mid-2010s, when Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, I attended two meetings to discuss these principles and their application in the health system.

One of the speakers was then Air New Zealand chief executive Chris Luxon. He preached with conviction the value of this approach.

It is most unfortunate for both the public service and those who, in so many different ways depend on it, that his government is not practicing today what he preached then.

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