19 March 2013

A stalwart of public service died yesterday.

Dr Robin Williams who had an extraordinary career in government, maintained an interest in public administration for more than 30 years after retiring  as the Chairman of the State Services Commission.  He was a cheerful participant at the function marking the centenary last November of the passing of the Public Service Act – and, chatting enthusiastically about governance experiences in times past, was among the last to leave!

Dr Williams had a series of unique experiences in his career.

A mathematician in an “essential” role in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research during the early years of the Second World War, he was unable to enlist for military service despite several attempts. Then with no real understanding of what he was being committed to, as part of the Quebec Agreement between the UK and United States on developing a nuclear bomb, he was assigned to support the small British contribution working at Berkeley, California on the Manhattan Project.  His team apparently worked independently and almost in competition with the main United States effort in Los Alamos.

After the war he undertook post graduate research at Cambridge University.  (The son of a clergyman, he took delight in tales of reconnoitering vicarages in the Cambridge area in search of “digs” for an impecunious colonial with a spouse and very young family in tow.) He returned to an academic life in New Zealand.

His academic career in New Zealand culminated as Vice Chancellor of Otago University from 1967- 1972.  He sought to be the Permanent Head of the Department of Education, but after being appointed to that position was successfully challenged at the Public Service Appeal Board because of the statutory priority given to a serving public servant.  He went to Canberra as the Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University. In 1975 returned to New Zealand on appointment to the State Services Commission, where he was the Chairman until he retired in 1981.