2 November 2012 

In Public Finance, a British magazine published yesterday, the deputy editor asks whether  there really are “… valuable lessons to be learnt from one of the world’s most remote countries – with a population roughly three times the size of Kent, and a government small enough to fit into one building in Wellington – on how to do public service reform?”

 She queries why the “…British political class seems genuinely convinced that in the land of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Sauvignon Blanc, the public service grass really is much greener; that Kiwis have discovered the secret elixir that has eluded UK governments: how to deliver public services more efficiently, at the same time as driving out costs.”

 The article reports  the fascination which Francis Maude, the UK Cabinet Office Minster,  seems to have with accountability arrangements between departmental chief executives in New Zealand and their Ministers.  He thinks this is where government gets more for less. She sees this as part of “public service envy” that regularly strikes Westminster.

Apparently the NZ Deputy Prime Minister when in Britain recently described a uniqueness of public sector reform in New Zealand was that the aspiration was to get more for less, using the Better Public Services model, not to make cuts that would just result on getting “less for less”.

The are currently three reputable research groups looking into the New Zealand model. The Institute for Government is trying to discover “…by what strange alchemy New Zealand is so ahead of the curve. (An adjacent issue is why so many UK policy initiatives – from welfare reform to pensions legislation – seem to have antipodean origins.) …”

 But the Institute says that “… it is important to dispel some myths. In the corridors of power, people often invoke the name of New Zealand, without really knowing or understanding what happened there.”

The IPPR, researching a range of “successful” administrations as part of the British Government’s accountability review, seems more  sceptical, suggesting foreign models  risk getting lost in translation. “…People like the contractual civil service model, because it all seems quite simple, in a Hobbit-like, good and evil way. But in practice, New Zealand’s ministers turned out to be not very interested in managing contracts…The jury is out on whether a New Zealand-style accountability model is the answer.”

“…Back in the real world, beyond the arcane discussions in Elvish, there are some interesting ideas and bits of good practice to learn from. But no magic bullets – from New Zealand or anywhere else – can conjure up more from much, much less. With apologies to Tolkien, there’s no one public service ring to rule them all.”