Centenary of Public Service Act 1912 coming into force

2 April 2013

The centenary yesterday of the most substantive provisions of the Public Service Act 1912 coming into force seems to have gone largely unmarked.  The cause is probably the Easter holiday, not any association with April Fool’s Day.  The New Zealand chapter of Transparency International recognised the occasion with a reminder to New Zealanders that good governance cannot be assured and used the anniversary to anticipate the findings of a review of the National Integrity System.  A media statement records a number of improvements since the initial NIS was undertaken in 2003, but foreshadows inevitable criticism when the report is made available, that more can, and should, be done.

The TINZ media statement was widely distributed but only scoop.co.nz  seems to have considered it newsworthy.  But then the State Services Commission, as the successor to the Public Service Commission doesn’t appear to have marked the centennial of the first Commissioner’s powers taking effect either.  An account of the Public Service Commission, begun on the anniversary of the enactment of the Public Service Act last November, was to have been progressively enlarged on the SSC website http://www.ssc.govt.nz/ps-centenary but it too seems to have faded from focus.


Satisfaction with public services slips in latest Kiwis’ Count survey

28 March 2013

Kiwis’ Count results for the December 2012 quarter were published yesterday. Customer satisfaction with government services which had shown an improvement with successive surveys has now hit a speed bump. The overall quality of service delivery in the 42 measured services slipped to 72 from a rating of 74 in the September quarter.  What seems to surprise the report writer is that there are no significant improvements in any service, but that three services declined significantly.

On the basis that previous surveys produced sound statistics, the consistent downturn in measures in the latest quarter indicates that there is a change in the perception of how agencies go about their work. Have New Zealanders become less satisfied over the last three months with the way things are done? The explanation may be that the latest results are a “seasonal variation” or that the previous measures were an anomaly – creating a blip in what is a less dramatic, but nevertheless upwards trend.

Interestingly, the Auditor General who this week published her Office’s draft statement of intent, proposes to continue using the Kiwis’ Count data to indicate whether OAG achieves its outcomes.  A measure is that the Kiwis’ Count survey shows improved ( or at least maintained ) rates of public trust with the public service and the public’s most recent experience of public services.  This latter element will obviously not be met.

The Auditor General will be hoping that the Worldwide Governance Indicators when next published in September 2013, and the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index due again in late 2013, repeat the ratings of previous years as these also are indicators specified in the OAG draft statement of intent.  Other measures relate to the State Services Integrity and Conduct Survey findings on the extent to which there is an increase in numbers of state servants reporting that their agency promotes standards of integrity, and the numbers indicating that they have reported any misconduct that they saw in the previous year.  But with no announcement yet about an integrity survey, it looks as if the OAG will be short on data to verify that New Zealand has a trusted public sector.

The Auditor General may have been unaware that the State Services Commission statement of intent published in 2012 did not indicate that there would be a survey in this year.  Perhaps the absence of any significant movement between the 2007 and the 2010 surveys suggested that there was little cost benefit in maintaining the survey series.  That seems to have been the motivation behind ending use of Gallup employment engagement surveys as a measure of staff commitment.  A comparison of survey results from participating parts of the State Services in 2008 /2009 was less than heartening.







Can the Spirit of Service dull reactions and diminish responsiveness?

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

Inaugural Public Service Day 106 years after legislating for public servants

7 November 2018

The Public Service Act passed on 7 November 1912 established the New Zealand Public Service. The Public Service comprises Government Departments listed in Sch 1 to the State Sector Act, which distinguishes them from the agencies which evolved from the Railways Department and the Post and Telegraph Department.

The anniversary of the enactment is to be commemorated each year with a Public Service Day. The occasion will be marked with presentations of The New Zealand Public Service Medal.  A Royal Warrant of July 2018, authorises “our Minister of State Services” to confer the medal for meritorious service by employees in the New Zealand Public Service (the power may be delegated to the State Service Commissioner.)

That wording is interesting.  It cannot be intended that the medal is awarded to Public Service chief executives. Those office holders are not employees. Similarly it cannot be intended to encompass employees in the wider State Services – covering inter alia, Parliamentary Departments, Non Public Services Departments, Reserve Bank, Tertiary Education Institutions, Crown Entities (including DHBs) and their subsidiaries and State-Owned Enterprises, although the predecessor agencies of many were part of the Public Service recognised by the 1912 Act.

The Public Service Act saw the end of the Civil Service which had supported  representative government from the meeting of the first New Zealand Parliament in 1854 (and which took over Colonial Office appointees who had been serving the Governor since separation from the New South Wales administration in 1841.)

This metamorphosis from Civil Service to Public Service which took effect from 1 April 1913 means that although New Zealand has one of the world’s oldest continuous Parliaments, the Public Service is less long standing.  (Canada established its Public Service in 1867, and Australia the year after New Zealand in 1913).

Canada has a Public Service Week ( set up by a two section Act ) and an Exemplary Service Medal created in 2004. Australia has a Public Service Medal but no commemorative Public Service Day.

The State Services Commissioner conferred six medals (two being posthumous) at a weekend event.

Interestingly both Dominica and Tonga also had an inaugural Public Service Day during 2018.  Both marked the day in June coinciding with the United Nations Public Services Day.








NZ public sector seen again as the World’s least corrupt

25 January 2017

Transparency International has published its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2016.

New Zealand which had been shunted aside from the top perch that it had occupied from 2005 -2014 has regained crowing rights.  It is the only country rated in the top 15 places of the CPI that improved its score in 2016. Most among the leaders were unchanged, although Norway dropped two points and the Netherlands dropped four points. New Zealand, scoring two more points than last year, moved back into equal first ranking with Denmark (which dropped one point). Australia remains in 13th place.  The majority of the 178 countries with public sectors included in the 2016 CPI were rated more poorly than in 2015. The perception is that in most countries if there is a focus on government integrity, it is insufficient to counter declining standards.

There is no obvious explanation for New Zealand going against the trend. It could be as simple as a misreading of public sector standards in 2015 – or perhaps this time!  A willingness for Government to work with Transparency International on implementing recommendations in the 2013 National Integrity Systems Report for New Zealand may have influenced perceptions. The Office of the Auditor-General has continued its emphasis on Trusted State Services. There have been other influences and counterbalances – the appointees to Chief Ombudsman and the Head of the State Services appear to be demanding higher standards from agencies while at the same time some senior officials in transport agencies in local government and nationally, have been the subject of Serious Fraud Office proceedings. The Better Public Services Goals have persisted, although the Performance Improvement Framework for agencies seems to have a diminishing priority. What is evident is the strengthening of civil society institutions. Examples are how the New Zealand chapter of Transparency International (TINZ), the Open Government Partnership Stakeholder Group, and the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies (VUW) have matured,  consolidated, and membership enthusiasm has morphed into expertise.  TINZ, for instance, is unlikely now to release a report as it did in 2013 indicating that 44% of New Zealanders thought government actions against corruption were ineffective – and one hopes would no longer give credibility as it then did to an extrapolation from a survey that 3% of the population had paid bribes equally to Police, Judges, the education system, for medical services and for registry and permit services.  It seems highly improbable that 3% of New Zealanders have had contact with a judge let alone sought out a judge to pay them a bribe. As the probability of 3% of the population bribing medical professionals is equally incredible, there must be doubt about the other “ findings” published at that time. In a marked contrast, the United States chapter of Transparency International this week was dis-accredited by the parent body.

For an integrity geek, today’s CPI results are a heartening confirmation that the public sector is not destined to sink under the weight of self-interest.  With few exceptions,  State servants have a deeply rooted commitment to trustworthiness. That hasn’t changed. There are ebbs and flows in the focus placed on integrity.  The mantra of being fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy summarising the Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services is seldom heard these days and less frequently featured in print.  Perhaps the CPI results reflect an imbued goodness and spirit of service.

And that may contribute to New Zealand rating 4th in the Democracy Index published today by the Economist Intelligence Unit – trailing Norway, Iceland and Sweden among the 19 “Full Democracies”.  Australia is 10th, UK 16th and the United States is now in 21st place having fallen among the “Flawed Democracies” even before the epiphany of “alternative facts”.





Public service numbers since Lord Normanby’s first appointee in 1839

14 August 2016

Last week the Minister of State Services published findings of the latest six monthly headcount in the core government administration. This shows the extent to which agencies (somewhat broader than “core public service” as described by the Minister)  have complied with the cap on staffing numbers imposed in 2008 by the newly elected  Key Administration. Then with notable exceptions including much of the Ministry of Social Development (including CYF) and Department of Corrections, employee numbers were capped in Public Service departments (the 35 departments then listed in Sch1 to the State Sector Act) and five Crown Entities (Housing NZ Corporation, Accident Compensation Corporation,  NZ Qualifications Authority, NZ Trade and Enterprise, NZ Transport Agency and the Tertiary Education Commission).

There were 38,849 relevant employees in December 2008 when the cap was imposed.  The latest headcount is 35,917 being a 190 full-time equivalent reduction since December 2015. (In December 2015  a substantially greater reduction – to 35,335 – was projected.) There are approximately 10,000 employees in MSD and Corrections who are not subject to the cap.

An interesting coincidence is that today is the 177th anniversary of what can be considered as the appointment of New Zealand’s first public servant. That is the date of the Instructions which Lord Normanby, the Secretary for State for War and the Colonies,  gave to Captain Hobson on his appointment as Consul in New Zealand in 1839.  Hobson’s mission was to establish a “settled form of civil government” in New Zealand which reflected the expectations prescribed by the Secretary of State. (James Busby who was the British Resident in the Bay of Islands from 1833 – 1840 was commissioned by the Governor of New South Wales.)

Lord Normanby  referred to exercising “mildness, justice, and perfect sincerity…”  and that ….”dealings …  must be conducted on …principles of sincerity, justice, and good faith…”  “The acquisition of land by the Crown … must be confined to such districts as the Natives can alienate without distress or serious inconvenience to themselves.”

Although New Zealand was to be a dependency to the Government of New South Wales Lord Normanby indicated that “… I trust that the time is not distant when it may be proper to establish in New Zealand itself a local legislative authority.”  But Hobson was to be the only Colonial Office appointee in the first instance. Subordinate officers with pay “…fixed with the most anxious regard to frugality in the expenditure of the public resources” were to  be selected from the colonists either of New South Wales or New Zealand, “…but upon the full and distinct understanding that their tenure of office, and even the existence of the offices which they are to hold, must be provisional, and dependent upon the future pleasure of the Crown.”

Permanent appointments were made in May 1841 by Lord Russell who had taken over as Secretary of State.  His appointments included William Martin as Chief Justice, William Swainson as Attorney-General and George Oathwaite as Registrar of the Supreme Court.  They replaced Hobson’s appointees although Willoughby Shortland (a former naval officer like Hobson) who accompanied Hobson from England was also appointed by Lord Russell as Colonial Secretary. He acted as Governor after Hobson’s death but was sacked as Colonial Secretary soon after Governor Fitzroy arrived.  Fitzroy replaced Shortland with Andrew Sinclair – a retired naval surgeon who accompanied Fitzroy to New Zealand.

Sinclair did not show particular ability as Colonial Secretary, but he acquired a reputation for being “honest, upright, scrupulous, and laborious”. He is recognised for setting up the nucleus of an efficient Civil Service, with men like G. S. Cooper and William Gisborne in key positions. He later drowned crossing the Rangitata River.

Swainson was praised by Lord Stanley and James Stephen at the Colonial Office for the clarity and intelligibility of his legislation and the completely new basis for the legal system in New Zealand. He opposed  responsible government recognising that it placed Maori at the mercy of a land-hungry European minority.  Seen consequently as a precise, careful but self-conceited lawyer he was described as a cultured English gentleman.  He was the first Speaker of the Legislative Council. He died in 1884 at Judges Bay in the house he brought from England.











Is there an erosion of public sector integrity?

15 December 2015

Bryce Edwards column today – The struggle for integrity – is a worthy compilation of media and blog items highlighting some of this year’s challenges to good government in New Zealand.  They reflect amazement at the Ombudsman’s inquiry conclusion that agencies are generally responsive to Official Information Act requirements, alarm at perceived politicisation of agency governance, concern at minimalist commitments to open government and almost exasperation at an apparent ambivalence about some forms of corruption. Collectively these suggest borer may be eating into the foundations of our public sector, diminishing what has to date been internationally recognised for its comprehensive strength and resilience. The integrity of the system may be threatened.  The range of issues comprising that threat illustrates the real meaning of integrity – it is not simply probity and rectitude.  Integrity is necessary for trustworthiness. That comes only from wholeness, coherence, completeness  and high-mindedness in all things.

And that is the meaning of integrity in the State Sector Act.  Integrity is not a mere standard. As the State Services Commissioner explains in the Introduction to Understanding the Code of Conduct; “The standards set by the code of conduct relate to matters of integrity and conduct. Integrity is the inclusive and all-embracing description of these ethical requirements. The headings under which the standards have been grouped – Fair, Impartial, Responsible and Trustworthy – are indicative of integrity. Integrity itself is pervasive and implicit in all the standards.

Many organisations have values statements or express their service commitment in terms of principles and values. Obligations in the code of conduct to be Fair, Impartial, Responsible and Trustworthy should not detract from using these other arrangements also, to promote integrity.”

Do the links in the Edwards article really point to a discernible deterioration? Is there a weakening in the transparency and integrity that glues respect for the rule of law, support for the democratic process and the spirit of service?

Perhaps the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index will substantiate any change. For many years the CPI has been published on the UN Anti Corruption Day – 9 December.  That was not the case this year – and there is no easily found explanation for a delay in releasing the CPI, apparently until late January 2016.

The President of the New Zealand chapter of Transparency  International in a recent radio interview raised the possibility of New Zealand slipping from its current 2nd place ranking  – on the coat tails of Denmark. New Zealand was last ranked 3rd in 2003 along with Denmark.  That year Finland was perceived to have the least corrupt public administration with Iceland in second place.

Integrity is a state of mind; it is not a set of rules.






Inverse relationship between Press Freedom and public sector corruption

28 May 2015

Heading the UNDP obliges Helen Clark to engage in some official responsibilities which must seem of dubious merit. Last week she spoke in Kazakhstan to the Astana Economic Forum about meritocracy and ethics in government.  She would hope that her comments would not be falling on deaf ears. Both the UNDP and the OECD are encouraging the growth of civil society to promote integrity in government and compensate for ineffective official controls.

The Kazakhstan public sector ranked 126th on the Transparency International  Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014, equal with Honduras, Togo, Gambia, Pakistan and Azerbeijan.  Kazakhstan is nearing the end of a five year Anti Corruption Programme, but companies report corruption as the number one constraint on doing business.  The Customs service for example is notoriously corrupt with facilitation payments demanded by officials in about 30% of transactions.

Little has changed despite numerous initiatives to moderate corruption.  Lessons don’t seem to be learned.  The director of the 2011 Asian Winter Games – which was the country’s largest ever event – has been convicted and imprisoned for extensive spending of public money on property and cars for his personal use. The bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics – as the rival of Beijing – is predicted to give opportunities to many in the construction sector to extract vast personal benefit from the $3.5 bn to be spent on Games-related projects. The Olympics ambassador was Vinokourov who won the gold medal for cycling at the London Olympics on his return to competition after being banned for drug taking on the 2007 Tour de France.

Kazakhstan as with the other states formerly part of the Soviet Union has had only 25 years during which democracy  – and the constitutional principles that grow with democratic elections -have struggled to take root.  In a survey published in late April, Freedom House  press freedom around the world was found to be at the lowest point in more than ten years with press freedom  in a majority of countries, including most former Soviet states, going backwards. In Kazakhstan there was a continuing crackdown on the media with journalists and news outlets subjected to legal restrictions, censorship, and intimidation. Constitutional guarantees are of little effect in moderating actions by the Kazakh government that limit freedoms of speech and of the press. Government control over 70% of web access has limited the effectiveness of social media.

However, even Israel which prides itself on being the only developed state in the region with nearly 70 years of western values is again in the news for unwelcome reasons.  Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , currently serving six years for receiving corrupt payments  when he was a Minister, has this week been convicted on more charges for accepting unlawful payments when he was the mayor of Jerusalem. He was acquitted previously of corrupt activities during the three years when he was the Prime Minister.

Olmert is the only one who ultimately has been convicted and imprisoned of four Israeli Prime Ministers investigated for corruption. Over the last 20 years three former Ministers and more than ten other MPs have been imprisoned for corrupt practices. That suggests cracks in the institutionalised  respect for the rule of law in which  opportunism can flourish. What marks Israel out is that it also has real press freedom – ranked 30th this year and unchanged from 2014.

Press Freedom in New Zealand continues to decline with a year on year slide from a high point of 2nd place in 1998 to 15th place this year.  It is interesting to compare the Freedom House rankings with the Reporters without Borders rankings which, this year, placed New Zealand in 6th place for press freedom.

Freedom House Press Freedom 2015 

1st= Norway
3rd= Finland
6th= Luxembourg
8th Switzerland
9th= Iceland
12th= Portugal
15th= New Zealand

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom 2015

1 Finland
2 Norway
3 Denmark
4 Netherlands
5 Sweden
6 New Zealand
7 Austria
8 Canada
9 Jamaica
10 Estonia
11 Ireland
12 Germany






Moonlighting valued at the top of the UK Civil Service?

13 October 2014

The State Services code of conduct includes a standard obliging people working in agencies to “…avoid any activities , work or non-work, that may harm the reputation of our organisation or of the State Services…”   SSC guidance on the meaning of the standard refers to potential conflicts that arise from secondary employment or from other business interests. “…We must have clear authorisation from our organisation before we begin any secondary or additional work.  Additional employment may create a conflict if it involves:

  • work in a business that has or is developing a contractual relationship with any government organisation
  • an organisation that receives public funding
  • a business that lobbies Ministers, or Members of Parliament, or government organisations
  • a business that is regulated by the organisation we work for
  • demands that may undermine our ability to fulfil our duties
  • a business that has an interest in the privileged, private or confidential information that we can access….”

Potential conflicts like these are such that it would be unusual for a New Zealand departmental Chief Executive to hold a concurrent role as a director or employee of a large public company.

The UK Civil Service code has no direct equivalent provision. And that may be why the announcement of the appointment of the Chief Executive of the Civil Service – who takes up this newly created position today – referred to the three secondary employment roles he has maintained throughout the eight months since he joined the Civil Service.  These are as a non executive director of an international brewery company, the chairman of an energy exploration company and an adviser to another energy company.

He will continue as a director (remuneration £100,000)  with the brewer, SABMiller (the name is derived from South African Brewery, its origin, and Millers, the largest of its beer brands in the United States). It operates in 80 countries.

Public concern is reflected in support for an Opposition MP’s criticism that “…We should never have big business people running the Civil Service. We want them on advising committees and we want their expertise available as much as possible, but not running the Civil Service – it compromises neutrality…”

The Cabinet Office is said to be satisfied there is no conflict of interest. More than 230 remarks about an article in the Guardian suggest that many others have a different perspective.




Civil Service chief executive not doing it for the money

9 October 2014

The British Civil Service appointed a Chief Executive last week. This new role seeks to bring a proven business focus to organisational change. The appointee has been part of the Civil Service for only eight months, moving from an oil industry career.  He has postgraduate qualifications in engineering and business management and an MBA. His role in the BP – Amoco merger may well be seen as pertinent expertise for delivering on Ministers’ demands for a smaller, more effective Civil Service.

And he is appears to be motivated by public spiritedness. Eight years ago his BP salary package was the equivalent of NZ$ 3 million. His chief executive salary at about NZ$ 400,000 puts him among the fifteen highest paid civil servants (the remuneration of none has changed much over the last four years).

This is likely to be seen as a private sector cuckoo in the public service nest. He appointee’s well-known view is that “… the Civil Service is too focused on policy-making rather than leadership on big projects.” Reportedly he would like to see “…a cadre of project managers brought into Whitehall operating on a payment-by-results basis, so a bank of experience is built up …”

Moves are already afoot to change the character of the Civil Service by opening senior appointments below permanent secretary to external candidates.  A culture is sought that will embody accelerated decision making, improved policy making and stronger programme and project management.