13 March 2013

Last night Len Cook spoke on “Framing the Debate” the first in a series of presentations about relationships, issues and tensions between Ministers and Chief executives, organised by the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies and the Institute of Public Administration. Another five lectures will take place over the next few weeks.

Len Cook is unique in having served as a Public Service chief executive in New Zealand and a Departmental Head in the British Civil Service (as NZ’s Government Statistician and UK’s National Statistician).  He has worked within the markedly different statutory frameworks and conventions but observed how they operated in a remarkably similar way.  His presentation was punctuated with anecdotes of his experience – including interactions with Hon Trevor Mallard who was his Minister for a number of years and who was in the audience. He spoke of the importance of the relationship  between Chief executives and their Ministers but which was shaped by different expectations – perhaps ultimately expressed in a comment by Prime Minister Muldoon about Jack Lewin when displeased by data released by the Statistics Office – “The Government Statistician is not this Government’s statistician”.

Len spoke of the need to manage complexity and risk – of an inability for New Zealand to rely on serendipity as in the past and the superiority of the British commitment to piloting and evaluation of new approaches. We cannot rely on traditional markets and the attitudes that went with them – illustrated by the need to be China focused and abandon our long standing “she’ll be right” perspective. His assessment is that too little attention is given to contemplating governance arrangements – we concentrate on the mechanics of leadership and not the business of leadership. It seems that Ministers cannot tap into a comprehensive understanding of departmental business until they get three levels down from the chief executive.  The commercial sector breeds leaders from within but not the Public Service.

There are some good things  in New Zealand.  When elected a government can “do stuff”  in marked contrast with the United States.  But Len felt that too often the Ministers ran out of a sense of purpose and used the analogy of giving the car keys to the kids – they just go out and do wheelies. All governments come with enthusiasm  and don’t feel any need to listen to officials’ advice.  The role of Public Servants is to be strategic, to target years’ three and four of an administration when Ministers really need support and direction, not the first three months. There was a need for serious public debate about Parliamentary sovereignty, and how parliamentarians see the rule of law.

The different expectations will always create a tension between Ministers and their chief executives.  Public servants need conventions. The role needs a framework. That is something Ministers will never appreciate.

A colourful question and answer session was cut shorter than many may have wished,  with an injunction to the audience to attend further presentations in the series. The opportunity would again arise to explore the kaleidoscope of ideas eccentrically constructed by Len into a framework for future debate.  The next presenter is Mai Chen,  speaking on 19 March about Chief executives, Ministers and Parliamentary scrutiny.