26 November 2021

A virtual celebration this week marked the announcement of the five category winners of 2021 Spirit of Service Awards. These were the agencies and individuals selected as exemplars of the Public Service Act section13 duty to act with the Spirit of Service to the community and to preserve, protect, and nurture the Spirit of Service to the community, that public service employees bring to their work.

The Awards have a lengthy pedigree having been championed for many years as the Public Service Excellence Awards by the Institute of Public Administration (IPANZ). A similar process has been maintained, with a premiere, Prime Minister’s Award going to the most worthy winner from the competition categories (Better Outcomes, Service Excellence, Maori-Crown Relationships, and Leadership in Governance). Coalitions of Health Agencies and Border Agencies engaged in Covid 19.  Shared the Prime Minister’s Award. Te Papa Tongarewa received the Leadership in Governance Award.

The persistence of Delta variant incursions has led to increasingly vocal criticism of Covid 19 elimination / suppression measures. What initially was a general willingness to comply with controls, is now fracturing with some in the media who deprecate the capability of Covid 19 programme managers, are expanding their audience of the disaffected. They want a “return to normal, now”, and with high numbers of the double vaccinated, for open borders, a resumption of tourism, a return of international education, immigration, and temporary workers from the Pacific. This movement may be seen as devaluing the commitment of the agencies awarded the Better Outcomes  and the Prime Minister’s Award and perhaps challenging the substance of the outcomes for which they have been recognised.

There may well be a link to the concerns voiced by Dame Kate Bingham in Britain. She is a venture capitalist in the life sciences, who was put in charge of leading the British vaccine task force last year. The Covid 19 campaign there was slow to get off the ground, but once mobilised, was speedier than any other large jurisdiction at vaccinating its population. The problem, she wrote about in The Times, was a lack of scientific knowledge among mandarins and ministers. Few in authority understood the implications of Covid 19 and as a consequence had left the country ‘woefully unprepared’ for the virus.

‘The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia,’ Dame Kate wrote in The Times. Only by short circuiting the usual government processes was further delay avoided. And could that become the criticism here where there is growing awareness of the deliberative and excessively considered pace which marked the realisation by decision-makers, that mass vaccinating of the population should be an immediate necessity.

She spoke of British officials having an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism. ‘There is a culture of groupthink and risk aversion.’ Civil servants were also accused of treating business with ‘hostility and suspicion’ in her criticism of their lack of skills in science, industry and manufacturing.  She is unlikely to be recommending the equivalent of Spirit of Services awards.

When speaking subsequently about lessons to be learned from the Covid 19 experience she referred to the role of a non civil servant – the chief scientific adviser – in precipitating the decision-making process. She believes that the outcome of the vaccine programme may otherwise have been very different.

It was a decision to buy vaccines deemed most likely to succeed before results were available that has been widely credited with helping Britain to start the western world’s first vaccine programme. It appears that New Zealand decision makers felt unable to do likewise and were steadfast in adhering to tried and tested approval processes.

Apparently a former chief adviser to Boris Johnson added fuel to what may become a pyre for senior civil servants by stating that “…Ministers lacked the scientific understanding necessary to realise the threat of the Covid pandemic and senior civil servants did not have the scientific and technical comprehension needed to be ‘operationally effective’. He said that this left the country exposed to future threats from cyberwarfare to climate change.

I wonder if the situation is any different in New Zealand?

The attached video of Dame Kath’s Romanes Lecture at Oxford University is worth a watch.

Te Hāpai Hapori | Spirit of Service Awards | Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission

Romanes Lecture – Kate Bingham, ‘Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce’ – Bing video Romanes Lecture – Kate Bingham, ‘Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce’ – Bing video