21 February 2013

The Deputy Prime Minister in his annual address today to the Institute of Public Administration (IPANZ) reiterated his drive for effectiveness in government. Speaking to the topic of Better public services and the need to stay focused he said that service delivery that is good for New Zealanders is also good for the economy. Not only are services proving more effective, but he highlighted how in 2008 the projected cost of government services this financial year was $76 billion. The actual figure will be about $72 billion. That includes costs of inflation. What is important is that the public sector has increasingly focused on doing things that make a difference.

In the last week he had seen how about a third of agencies were redirecting their capacity to pursue effectiveness. He observed that agencies have known what their budgets were since 2010 – unlike anywhere else in the Western world – enabling them to shape their operations. He warned anyone who thought that they could wait for better times not to bother; they would find that the campaign for the next election would see parties competing over the extent to which they would reduce government borrowing. There is no more money.

Mr English spoke of the purpose in setting the Better Public Services results. Although these reduced the freedom of Ministers, they had real meaning for New Zealanders. He referred to an expression he had previously used, that “we know who they are” when talking of supporting vulnerable children, reducing reoffending and reducing long term welfare dependency. The task of agencies was to focus on effective solutions for those individuals. Supporting a released prisoner so he doesn’t reoffend saves $100,000 a year, providing the help to avoid someone needing the invalid’s benefit saves a fortune.

The Minister indicated that notions of Whole of Government were confusing. Most activities did not require all agencies to be involved. Similarly he found notions of collaboration unhelpful. Collaboration might improve relationships but accountability was diminished. A current expression he did favour was “collective impact” -which reinforced the notion of contributing for effect. An expression he wanted eliminated from Cabinet Papers was “culture change”. What was needed was to do things differently if that was how to be effective.

Pursuing effectiveness was going to involve uncertainty. Ultimately agencies might not make a difference. He implied that spending that made no difference could then be redirected. We can have cheaper failure. He alluded to centralising data specialists as a way of improving understanding and use of information – perhaps an illustration of “collective impact”?

The Minister believes IT is the essence of change. It is core to the way agencies use their special knowledge. He had been surprised in the past at the number of senior officials who had so little understanding of this key to effectiveness. Using information was the substantive uniqueness of agencies. Their value depended on how they used that information. Imminent legislative changes would improve the information framework but there seemed a reluctance by agencies to respond to Ministers’ expectations. The role of the chief government information officer would be strengthened.