4 December 2014

Prof Jean Hartley (Open University Professor of Public Leadership)  presented her recent ANZSOG research on “Public managers and political astuteness: lessons for the New Zealand State sector “ to a Wellington gathering yesterday about the time when the Chairman of Transparency International in Berlin was releasing the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Prof Hartley heralded an aspect of New Zealand public management-speak emerging from a lengthy eclipse just as the New Zealand public sector’s reputation was losing the glow which for eight years has accompanied its place as the least corrupt on the CPI.

Prof Hartley reported on responses from over 1,000 public sector managers in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom to five questions;

  • What is the nature of political astuteness in public management? How important is it to public managers’ work?
  • How politically astute are public managers?
  • Does political astuteness vary by context, type of organisation and managerial level?
  • In what contexts do public managers use political astuteness?
  • How do public managers develop political skills?

She commented on how only when underway with the research did the notion of the “purple zone” evolve, of viewing the interface between politicians and senior officials in colour terms. It appeared that few in the large audience were familiar with the reference.  Yet it was part of public management-speak in New Zealand for ten years from the mid 1990s. The purple zone was adapted by Alex Matheson, Gerald Scanlan and Ross Tanner when at the State Services Commission, to describe part of their reformed public management model where the blue of politics blended with the red of the administration – “the purple zone is …an amalgam of separation and integration…” Similarly, Peter Shergold was writing about accountability in the Australian government under the title “The Colour Purple…” Chris Eichbaum and Richard Shaw have written about ministerial advisers as boundary riders in the purple zone.  The SSC corporate colour flags the notion that the State Services Commissioner’s role is to police that purple zone, and for a period in 2011 the colour characterised a SSC blog, the Purple Pages.