12 July 2012

Public administrations everywhere are being reshaped to match their fiscally stressed economies. And reflecting traditional commercial logic, everywhere the numbers working for government are reducing. The mindset of many political leaders again seems to be that emulating the private sector is necessary. Structures must have a commercial edge, and governance arrangements are to be shaped in the belief that the wisdom of the market place will give a better return to the taxpayer.

New Zealand has fallen behind the bleeding edge over the last 20 years, leaving to others the boots and all changes in aspects like health service organisation and the creation of public private partnerships.  As we change to be catch up, others move on seeking a communitisation of functions, “a revitalized civil society”.

Ironically, there was a reference to the New Zealand Public Service during the House of Lords Constitution select committee review of Civil Service accountability two weeks ago. Evidence given on behalf of the Institute of Government included a comment that “The New Zealand model is one of those wonderful things that one talks about, but New Zealand is an awfully long way away…”   An added ambiguity was that a friend who made a visit reported that “it is not quite so simple”.

The open society message was championed in the final of the 2012 Reith Lectures given this week by Prof Niall Ferguson. There has been very little intellectual endorsement. The denigration heaped by contributors to a BBC Radio 4 blog paints his views as “condescending”, “narcissistic”, “Conservative Party orthodoxy”.

But there can be little comfort in looking at big business as a model for public administration.  Good government is directly related to trustworthiness. The more open an organisation is, the greater the trustworthiness.  Transparency International has found little to admire in the commitment to transparency of most the world’s “top” public companies.  The conclusion in a survey report published this week was that “multinational companies remain an important part of corruption around the world”.  Not a model to follow.

Best rated was Norway’s Statoil for openness in disclosing its anti-corruption programme and the revenue, taxes paid and community contributions in all countries where it operates. Next after “a steep drop” were Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton (both partly Australian owned).  HSBC was the highest scoring bank, a little ahead of ANZ Bank.  Generally banks and insurance companies rated poorly. The Bank of China rated 1.1 out of 10.  Barclays didn’t score!