7 November 2012

 The New Zealand Public Service was created a hundred years ago today;  7 November is the centenary of the enactment of the Public Service Act 1912. The Act excluded Ministerial  involvement in appointments, promotions and remuneration of government employees, which had been commonplace at that time.  In the new service these employment decisions were beyond the reach and influence of Ministers. The legislation facilitated an apolitical, career service that could support successive governments, regardless of the politics of the majority party. It created a politically neutral, permanent, professional  service.

What is largely unmarked, is that the other government services in New Zealand that were not incorporated into the Public Service – and for a long time remained larger and of no lesser national importance,  the Post and Telegraph  and the Railways Departments were similarly politically neutral, permanent and professional.

Although only a few provisions in the Act came into force on enactment, 7 November can be regarded as the foundation date.  New Zealand moved away from having a “civil service” at that point.  The term Public Service  reflected the language of the new legislation. Australia had led the way ten years earlier, establishing a Federal Public Service to support the newly created Commonwealth. Canada has a Public Service also, unlike Britain (and the United States) where the the language is still of a civil service.

The Public Service Act resulted in a shape and culture that has remained largely unchanged.  The essence of this culture is the separation of  ‘political’ and ‘administrative’ functions, both in conduct of the Government’s business and in management of the Public Service itself

An Institute of Public Administration celebration tonight, to be attended by the Governor General, will commemorate the centenary.  It will recognise  accomplishments and the service contributions of public servants throughout 100 years.

The United States presidential election taking place concurrently, provides focus to the substantial differences between the Westminster and the Washington models. Institutional democracy in the United States involving the selection of senior officials at the same time as the President is being elected, highlights the alternative to the politially neutral New Zealand model – although of course processes in the United States are very strict in ensuring that officials in the permanent ranks of the civil service avoid any political conflicts of interest.

And the resignation of a Minister this week because of serious maladministration in part of her portfolio, is an echo of  the Westminister tradition at work in New Zealand.

In an interesting coincidence a report on possible changes in the British Civil Service will be published today by the Institute of Government.