2 August 2012

The British Minister for the Cabinet Office is showing signs of impatience about getting Civil Service changes that will deliver his view of good government. He fronted the release of the Civil Service Reform Plan in June, and largely reiterated the key points when examined in mid-July at the House of Lords Constitution Select Committee’s inquiry into Government accountability.  He seems keen on making officials more directly supportive of their Ministers and for them to share Ministers’ commitments.

Yesterday he called for studies of jurisdictions that fall either side of the UK model to assess whether different alignment between the political and administrative arms of government may be the key to better performance. Would contracting civil servants to deliver on Governments objectives make for more accountable efforts to deliver on Ministers’ aspirations?  He wants to know whether there are features of the Australia or New Zealand systems that could be adopted.  What are the advantages of the Australian practice where departmental secretaries offer to resign when a new Administration takes office? Should features be copied from the New Zealand model where Statements of Intent set out how departments deliver the outcomes agreed with their Ministers?

The Minister said, “While we are rightly proud of our civil service, we shouldn’t hubristically assume that there’s nothing we can learn from other successful governments, whether, like Australia and New Zealand where they have political arrangements which are broadly similar to ours, or like Singapore or the United States where they are more distinct.”

Apparently he wants a radical change in governance arrangements. He’s reportedly frustrated by the convention that ignores errors on the part of the civil service, holding Ministers responsible for all that happens in their departments.  As five former Cabinet Secretaries and Heads of the Civil Service who last month gave evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee were strongly supportive of the convention, the Minister may have a struggle introducing a new accountability structure. The evidence of another expert belittled the New Zealand model, operating in a jurisdiction which he described as “the square root of bugger all”. That may be why funding is being made available for think tank research rather than advice being prepared from within the civil service.

In developing the options for deriving Better Public Services in New Zealand, a review of comparable jurisdictions identified that agencies here have considerably more autonomy over management decisions than the comparisons – with only Canada being further away from New Zealand than the UK, on a continuum covering Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Singapore.

The irony may be that British Ministers find attractive the New Zealand scheme where chief executives have a fixed term appointment and authority to implement agreed objectives, rather than the permanent status of British heads of department, who usually rotate through departments every 2 – 3 years, often serving in a portfolio for a shorter period than the Minister. The Better Public Services paper on the State Sector Act proposes bringing back aspects of that British civil service model to New Zealand.  This would enable… “chief executives and 2nd and 3rd tier staff to be deployed anywhere within the State services in response to system needs. This reinforces (and goes further than) a proposal that the SSC had already developed … to enable the Commissioner to transfer a chief executive from one department to another…”