24 October 2012 

Is it fad and folly or fact and foresight that motivates the interminable restructuring of New Zealand public sector agencies? This was one of many issues touched on by  Professor Jonathon Boston in his contribution to the ‘100 Year Perspective’  –  the IPANZ / Ministry of Culture and Heritage celebration of  enacting the Public Service Act in 1912. His paper, “the Eighties – A Retrospective View’’ explored aspirations for change and the spirit of reform that brought about refocused governance.  That new focus came from measures in the State-Owned Enterprises Act in 1986, followed by the State Sector Act in 1988, the Public Finance Act in 1989, and other legislation, concluding with the Crown Entities Act in 2004.

Substantial change was precipitated not only by economic circumstances, but by the alignment of reforming enthusiasm shared by Ministers in a new government and influential public service leaders.

Prof Boston acknowledged some advantages flowing from the reforms – which gave New Zealand poster child status among advocates of the new public management movement. New Zealand was the better for the changes but he recited a litany of overlooked opportunities and improvements ignored.  Some changes were more fad than foresight. A number of the strengths of 1912 Act were lost.

The post 1988 Public Service was quite different from the “old Public Service”, with agencies, arguably, having little in common.  What remained was a sense of service, of integrity and commitment despite the potential for cronyism and corruption.

Which raises the question of why Rt Hon Francis Maude, the British Cabinet Office Minister, is looking to New Zealand as a possible model of ways to increase the accountability and responsiveness of the civil service. In his reform plan released in June, he indicated a frustration with the civil service. He reiterated that frustration when appearing in July before the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution.

That led to the appointment of the Institute of Public Policy and Research to carry out a review of machinery of government in Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, United States and Sweden. The IPPR team will be in Wellington shortly as part of its fact finding. Mr Maude is also likely to make his own visit here shortly. It will be interesting to see what they identify in New Zealand arrangements that, if transplanted to Britain, would improve the performance of the civil service.

 Perhaps Professor Peter Hughes address next week on the 100 Year Perspective -“The Present and Future” will suggest answers.

Professor Lord Hennessy would be unlikely to concur. He said to the House of Lords Constitution Committee that …” I do not want to be unkind about New Zealand, but it is the size of a local authority. It is the square root of bugger all, really, compared to what Ministers in this country have to deal with, so I do not think it is much of a model…”