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The future of the public sector—on a knife edge

The future of the public sector—on a knife edge

Victoria University expert Associate Professor Bill Ryan on expected merger.

“In some respects, the future of the public sector in New Zealand is on a knife-edge. What government decides it wants done in the next few months and how the public sector responds will be critical for New Zealand medium and long term.

“The present round of activity - of which the Prime Minister's statement on Thursday and the presumed release of the report of the Better Public Services Advisory Group (although it is still unclear if and when that report will be released) - is likely to be crucial.

“To date, government's talk has been dominated by cost-cutting, rationalisations and mergers. While responsible fiscal management and efficiency in the public sector are important, there are many other important issues that are decisive for the future about which little or nothing has been said.

“Many of these are complex issues that some New Zealanders might think sound boring but which are actually very important in sustaining the kind of competent, high-integrity, politically-neutral and evidence-driven public sector that countries such as ours rely on.

“Some of these matters relate to what sort of governance arrangements New Zealanders actually want now and in the future; how ministers conduct themselves in cabinet and in relation to the public service; how officials act in relation to ministers and to citizens; how the public sector is organised relative to the policy goals and objectives of government; whether public management should be organised around outputs or outcomes; whether restructuring improves performance; how shared responsibility is to be enacted; and so on.

“These are just some of the issues raised in a recent book 'Future State: Directions for Public Management in New Zealand’ (eds. B. Ryan and D. Gill; Victoria University Press, 2011).

“For many years, New Zealand was regarded as an international leader in matters of public management and governance - in how to organise a public sector and have it serve government and citizens. In recent years, things have stagnated and fallen behind international developments, mainly because of an endless repetition of ideas and approaches devised in the 1980s.

“What the political arm of the executive decides to do in the next few months will have a critical impact on whether the administrative arm, the public sector, is able to adapt and develop in confronting the challenging conditions of the 21st century. So far, the reform agenda for the future articulated by government has been far too narrow and one-sided. Much more needs to be discussed than has been introduced to date.”


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