27 February 2013

The Guardian’s Public Leaders’ page today carries a summary of a speech by the New Zealand Minister of State Services to an audience of British civil servants. In anticipation of the release of an IPPR report prepared for Francis Maude the UK Cabinet Office Minister on options to improve civil service accountability, Dr Coleman suggested that politicians and public servants had to work together better. This would probably have appeal in the UK where there has been a dramatic breakdown in relationships between many Ministers and their senior civil servants – although at the time of this post there has been no feedback comment.

Mr Maude who wants “… an exceptional civil service delivering the best for Britain…” appears to want more responsiveness to ministerial expectations. He may wonder why he has suggested that New Zealand may be a model for change in the light of Dr Coleman’s observation that “… Ministers do have to be prepared to take … professional advice and not be bloody-minded about things…”

While morale among senior civil servants has taken a knock since Mr Maude became Cabinet Office Minister, Mr Coleman has suggested that it is important to avoid running down the morale of public servants. However, he acknowledged that there was no single solution to the relationship between Ministers and their senior officials. He seems satisfied with the New Zealand appointments process for departmental chief executives, commenting on the inappropriateness of making political appointments. If the United States practice were to be replicated and all senior public servants changed with a change of government, he feared institutional knowledge could be endangered and “…bring a risk of chaos…”

A focus on developing leaders in the State Sector and Public Finance Amendment Bill is perhaps to give effect to Mr Coleman’s concern that the Public Service must be an attractive career for graduates and by inference contribute to what he described as a good pool of people at the top of the Public Service. The experience in New Zealand presumably is the basis for his observation that “…private sector appointments at the top of the Public Service are not always going to be the silver bullet…”