14 November 2012

UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is in New Zealand to verify studies suggesting that arrangements between Public Service chief executives and their Ministers may be suitably transplanted to Britain.  He is seeking increased responsiveness from the Civil Service.  Today he will speak to the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University about “Civil Service Reform: the British Approach”.  The audience will be intrigued to learn about the Minister’s perception of the New Zealand Public Service and what he sees in Wellington practices that would have effectiveness improvements for the Civil Service.

The Minister is managing the UK Civil Service reform programme. As part of that programme the Institute for Public Policy Research has been contracted to review a number of civil service models and to assist evaluate these alternatives. The IPPR research team was in New Zealand last week, and the Minister is here to see New Zealand’s accountability processes for himself.  Interestingly, the politics of IPPR are seen as left of centre, so its recommendations may not have a natural fit with the Minister’s preferences. However he was impressed apparently, by a 2006 international comparative study prepared by IPPR.

The Minister has spoken of obstruction by senior civil servants and indicated an interest in departmental heads entering into performance contracts that include delivering on ministerial objectives. He has said that he doesn’t want to politicise the Civil Service, but wants to sharpen accountability.

This visit comes directly on the heels of the launch by Transparency International NZ yesterday of work that will culminate in mid 2013 in a new and improved National Integrity System assessment.   Presentations by the Auditor General, former Governor General, and the State Services Commissioner among others, referred to the centenary this month of the Public Service Act.  They complimented generations of public servants who built the tradition of public sector integrity and trustworthiness, reflected in the very high placement of New Zealand on the Corruption Perceptions Index. This was facilitated by the politically neutral, professional Public Service created by the 1912 Act.

The extent to which the politically neutral character has survived and to which free and frank advice is given to, and received by, Ministers has been questioned.  However there doesn’t seem to be any published material by a (former) chief executive referring to such diminution of these standards of professionalism.

Is a constraint on the ability of New Zealand chief executives to provide frank and unwelcome advice indicative of the “accountability” sought by the UK Minister?