Seeing what we want to see?

9 August 2016

Measuring government agency effectiveness and efficiency is complicated;  and more so when comparing performance across the public sector.  The Performance Improvement Framework around which continuous improvement of NZ State Services is evaluated was refined again this year, diminishing the value of previous PIF reports for comparison purposes. The Trans Tasman Annual Review of Government Departments is probably too crude a tool to be taken seriously.

Making international comparisons is no less complex. The World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators and the Ease of Doing Business Index (NZ 2nd in 2015),  Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index  (NZ 4th in 2015) and numerous other measures like the Human Development Index (NZ 9th= in 2014) or even the World Happiness Index (NZ 9th in 2016) suggest the likely character of agencies but are insufficient to measure the competence and  efficiency of national agencies. Within the OECD the annual Government at a Glance survey is a generic performance indicator.

Nevertheless there are  international surveys that serve as  de facto comparators – assuming agencies have similar responsibilities; for example the Open Budget Index  may be seen as a comparative assessment of Finance Ministries – in which case the NZ Treasury could claim to be the best in the World, New Zealand having ranked highest on the two most recent Open Budget Indexes. The Global Peace Index where New Zealand has never ranked lower than 4th place may confirm the effectiveness of agencies in the Justice sector.

But some World Bank measures may provide a contrary picture.  The World Bank recently published the 2016 Logistics Performance Index, which measures the efficiency of clearance processes by border control agencies, – including speed, simplicity and predictability of formalities.  One product is a World Bank-produced pecking order of custom services in the 161 jurisdictions whose data is analysed. The top performing customs services, when the scores for the last four surveys are averaged,  are in Germany, Netherlands and Singapore.

NZ Customs Service has a mean rank of 22nd although New Zealand’s overall logistics performance puts it in 31st place. The New Zealand score dropped substantially in the 2016 index – to 37th place – which lowered the average of 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 LPIs.  Last week Indian media made play of India’s customs service performing better than New Zealand’s.

In the October 2015 UMR survey of public respect for government services in New Zealand, the NZ Customs Service was found to be the third most respected after the Fire Service and Police – and a little ahead of the Department of Conservation. If that is the perception New Zealanders have of an agency which rates poorly among comparable jurisdictions, a reasonable inference may be that the performance of agencies that are less well-regarded by New Zealanders is very poor compared with equivalent agencies in other developed jurisdictions.

Perhaps we see only what we want to see – and even when seeking to be objective “….we don’t see things as they are but as we are ourselves.”


Tigers and Flies

2 August 2016

Last Friday was the International Day of the Tiger – Global Tiger Day – nominated in May this year at a UN Environment Assembly, as part of the Wild for Life campaign run by UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime,  and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

In China there was an anthropomorphic spin on the day, with General Guo Boxiong, one of the regime’s tigers as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (President Xi Jinping is Chairman of the Central Military Commission) was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes to arrange promotions. Guo was stripped of his rank, deprived of his political rights for life, and his assets were confiscated.  Guo’s bribes were “extremely huge” and his crimes were “extremely serious.”

In 2013 when Xi became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the People’s Republic of China he made an anti-corruption commitment to crack down on both “tigers” (senior officials) and “flies” (lower ranks). Although his predecessor regularly spoke of the importance of tackling corruption, the pace and prominence of compliance measures appear to have increased.  English language media carry frequent reports; the Shanghai Daily has a navigation bar for All Flies and Tigers Articles, and ChinaFile has an interactive tool for reporting on Tigers and Flies  by rank, location, sector, date etc.

Another report last week illustrates the probable use of the tigers and flies programme to neutralise political opposition.  Zhang Yue, a former standing member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) committee in Hebei Province  was charged with “extravagance and hedonism”.  He had been absent without official leave during important missions, he practised “superstitious” activities, sought benefits for others, attended banquets, played golf, and accepted gifts and money in violation of the Party’s clean-governance rules. He traded power and money for sex and interfered in construction projects and judicial activities.  Zhang had “lost his beliefs, seriously violated the Party’s code of conduct and did not end his inappropriate behaviour after the CPC 18th National Congress” (when Xi was appointed as President).  Zhang was removed from office, his assets were confiscated and he was expelled from the Party.



Trust is a question of the heart

11 July 2016

The New York Times may have a liberal bias but an article last week “A more personal Hillary Clinton tries to erase a trust deficit” pulled no punches in listing the leading presidential candidate’s acts and omissions that undermine the electorate’s confidence in her.  Polls suggest that she is considered about 8%  less trustworthy than Donald Trump.   The article concludes with an attribution to one of Mitt Romney’s Republican strategists, that “there are two things that drive us in politics: the head and the heart. Trust is a question of heart.”  An inference is that without regenerating her trustworthiness, Mrs Clinton will struggle in the general election. Even her supporters tell pollsters that they do not trust her.

Mrs Clinton recently acknowledged that she has “made mistakes” and will have to work at getting people to trust her.  This was emphasised when the FBI Director contradicted many of her explanations regarding her email use and said that she had been “extremely careless”.  Moderating what some see as her extreme hubris, she told an audience that “You can’t just talk someone into trusting you. You’ve got to earn it.”  But it still took her months after the email scandal broke before she conceded some fault.

The article reports a campaign adviser indicating that there is no magic set of words that will address the trust deficit head-on. Mrs Clinton cannot bluntly ask voters to trust her and wash away the past. “She will quell doubts once she has the job”… with her performance, and how hard she works for the people she represents.

Part of the trust problem is that voters are much more inclined to believe the bad things they hear about a political figure than the good things. Nearly twice as many polled voters when comparing Mrs Clinton with Mr Trump felt that Mrs Clinton said what she thought people wanted to hear most of the time, rather than what she believed.  “It’s more like she’s saying things because they’re politically correct or because they further her agenda, rather than because it’s coming from the heart,” one said. She may only capture the hearts of a majority of the electorate, their trust and their votes, if those voters can trust that she speaks from the heart.




Post-truth politics – when does an aphorism become a media cliché?

10 July 2016

This year has seen a renewed enthusiasm by political commentators in the United States and the United Kingdom for using “post-truth” to describe the disregard some politicians show for the accuracy of their public statements.  The utterances of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been a regular focus. A Google search for “post-truth politics” produces more than 5,080,000 hits.  Inevitably this has influenced our media.  Andrea Vance this week has written and tweeted asking if “… the post-truth era is upon us?”  It was 16 years ago that Ralph Keyes titled his book about dishonesty and euphemisms The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. Her query then may be an ironical observation about New Zealand society in generally – and politicians in particular – trailing much of the western world by the better part of a generation – or it could just be that as the Guardian has been keen on the term, it needs air time here.

Familiarity with the expression may also flow from the recent launch of a book by Ari Rabin-Havt  Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics.  Rabin-Havt is a Vice President of Media Matters for America, a media watchdog aggressively critical of conservative media and their contributors.  Hillary Clinton was an early adviser to Media Matters. The New York Times has reported that Media Matters “helped lay the groundwork” for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.  Which leads to a New Zealand connection.  Hillary Clinton can perhaps be recognised as one of the early adopters of the post-truth style.  In 1995 she spoke of her mother naming her after Sir Ed Hillary. She also made that comment when meeting Sir Ed.  Despite being challenged repeatedly about the veracity, as her birth in 1947 was when Ed Hillary was an unrecognised New Zealand beekeeper and six years before scaling Mt Everest, it was more than a decade before she acknowledged the exaggeration.

A 2010 Grist article is claimed to have been the first use of the term “post-truth politics”  which in 2011 was adopted regularly by Paul Krugman articles in the New York Times, but a chapter in the 2004 book When President’s Lie (Eric Alterman) was titled “The Post-Truth Presidency”.  The “post-truth society” was being referred to in a blog by Charles Colson in 2002.‘post-truth’-era-upon-us




China’s floods flow from corruption

8 July 2016

The following Noachian headline has been reiterated by dozens of news aggregator sites since publication by Quartz earlier today.

China’s devastating floods can be traced back to corruption and overbuilding” heads an account of flooding across 26 Chinese provinces. A super typhoon this weekend is forecast to add to last week’s rain that has affected 32 million people with alleged losses of about $NZ 10 billion. Although the numbers killed appear lower than in many Chinese disasters reported by the international media, this is the country’s worst flood for ten years. The city of Wuhan is most affected. The transport network is paralyzed because drainage schemes that were to have been completed this year, have been only partially built.

Flooding results from reclamation for urban development of large lake areas.  The construction of compensating flood controls has been delayed because funding has been redirected or lost to other corrupt practices. Quartz comments that corruption and wasteful spending scandals are not uncommon in China’s flood-control projects and lists illustrations. In March after a special Cabinet meeting Premier Li Keqiang spoke of new measures in his campaign to stamp out corruption and oversee public spending.   But when visiting the flood area he said nothing about these underlying causes.


IPANZ State Sector Excellence Awards 2016

6 July 2016

The Prime Minister’s Award for Public Sector Excellence was presented at the Annual Deloitte Public Sector Excellence Awards this evening to the Auckland Council for its Bylaw Review Programme. This was described as a complex activity undertaken over five years to produce a coherent and sustainable set of regulations – and which form exemplars for other local authorities. The candidates for Prime Minister’s Award are the winners of the eight categories of the Public Sector Excellence Awards.  State sector and local government agencies submitted more than 90 projects to be considered for an Excellence Award. The category winners were:

  • Justice Sector Excellence Award for Building Trust and Confidence in Government  – New Zealand Police for “Enhancing Trust and Confidence through Culture change at New Zealand Police”
  • Te Puni Kokiri Award for Excellence in Crown-Maori Relationships – Ministry of Justice  for “Nga Kooti Rangatahi” ( marae based youth courts)
  • Treasury Award for Excellence in empowering Public Value through Business Transformation – Inland Revenue for “Making a Difference  – doing the right things right”
  • Microsoft Award for Excellence in Digital Government – Department of Internal Affairs for Birth Registrations on line”
  • State Services Award for Excellence in Achieving Collective Impact – Ministry of Education / Tertiary Education Commission for”Working together gives kids better career choices and real results”
  • State Services Commission / Leadership Development Centre Award for Improving Performance through Leadership Excellence  –  Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation for Improving our Workplace Culture”
  • Victoria University of Wellington School of Government Award for Excellence in Public Sector Engagement – Ministry of Primary Industries for “Queensland Fruit fly response, Auckland”
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment / Treasury Award of Excellence  in Regulatory Systems – Auckland Council for the “Bylaw Reform Programme”

The Skills Organisation Young Professional of the Year Award  to Mataroria Lyndon, Ka Awatea – Counties Manukau Health



Does the US need to champion democracy at home?

24 March 2016

The  pantomime-like performance of leading figures in the United States Primary elections  hardly shows American politics in its best light.  A  shortage of  the tolerance, openness and integrity implicit in a strong democracy suggests that a significant number of Americans are less democratic in their commitments than American patriots may believe.  And that is also the conclusion drawn by the Electoral Integrity Project which evaluates elections worldwide.  Its latest annual report analyses parliamentary and presidential elections in 139 countries over the last three years, including 54 national elections last year. EIP is jointly run by University of Sydney and Harvard University research teams with contributions from more than 2000 election experts.

The perception of election integrity in many countries is not encouraging.   Approximately 15%  of the national elections scored lower than 40 on the 100 point EIP index for measuring  international standards, with another 15% not much better.  These scores are the aggregate of 49 questions grouped into 11 sections.

Only a third of elections were rated as “passing” campaign finance standards, with a third failing an adequate quality of media coverage

Long-standing Northern European democracies rank highest in electoral integrity, led by Denmark, Finland and Norway.  Germany is the only country with a large  population in the top 20. Except for the Netherlands, the others all have fewer than 10 million inhabitants.

New Zealand’s democratic lustre looks somewhat tarnished at 16th place on the Index, following newer democracies like Estonia, Costa Rica and Lithuania.

The 2015 UK general election assessed as the worst performance in Western Europe, means the UK at 39th,  ranks alongside Italy and Greece.

Even worse, the United States, based on the 2012 Presidential election and the 2014 Congressional elections, was ranked below other long-established democracies, at 46th equal with Panama, on the cusp of being classified as only “moderately” democratic.

2015 Election Integrity Index

1              Denmark

2              Finland

3              Norway

4              Sweden

5              Costa Rica

6              Germany

7              Estonia

8              Netherlands

9              Switzerland

10           Iceland

11           Lithuania

12           Austria

13           South Korea

14           Slovenia

15           Czech Republic

16           New Zealand


18           Canada


26           Australia


39           United Kingdom


46           United States


The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes a Democracy Index each year.  New Zealand can take more heart from that evaluation. In the latest survey New Zealand remained in the top four – along with the Scandinavians. The United Kingdom and the United States were more aligned with their traditional roles as champions of democracy, being placed among the top 20 democratic states.


Wlll Irish eyes be smiling this month?

14 March 2016

The countries ranking best on the Worldwide Governance Indicators published every two years by the World Bank are commonly smallish, with strong Western European values, and traditions of democracy. The WGI evaluate:

  • Voice and Accountability
  • Political Stability and Absence of Violence
  • Government effectiveness
  • Regulatory Quality
  • Rule of Law
  • Control of Corruption

And in other good-government assessments, like Sustainable Government, Media Freedom,  Open Budget,  Corruption Perceptions, Ease of Doing Business, Public Sector Codes of Conduct and so on,  the league of  the well-regarded  changes little.  New Zealand can usually make the top twenty.  The Scandinavians and their similar population-sized, affluent, liberal neighbours and like-minded countries dominate the top ten. But Ireland seems to struggle to maximize its Western European advantages – being now challenged by the likes of Estonia which with the breakup of the USSR is regaining its Scandinavian character.

Size seems to make it difficult for the leading financial and commercial countries to make the top ten with any consistency. Germany and the United Kingdom often appear to be the best ranking of the larger economies.

This time of the year is a reminder of the influences that have shaped the Irish, divided North from South, and given rise to poorer ratings than the United Kingdom “as a whole”.  Why is  Ireland not among the leaders as one of the small, affluent, liberal, Scandinavian neighbours?  While St Patrick will be a cause for festivities throughout the island this week, the Republic  will begin events that will run over the next 12 months to mark the centennial of the Easter Rising, and over the next seven days in Northern Ireland there is a remarkable Imagine Festival. Dubliner’s eyes may be on the Chief Post Office and the beginning of open hostilities by the Irish Volunteers,  Belfastians will have a Festival of Ideas and Politics.

The Imagine Festival –an apolitical provocation in a country which has been sorely troubled by polarised politics – is promoted as a commemoration to explore big ideas in that wee country.

There are 80 events to encourage debate on the big issues of the day – presumably with a nod to the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May and the EU referendum in June.  This list is impressive   The Festival’s events seek to attract many who are not normally involved in politics and to  stimulate discussion on new cultural and political  ideas.

This is the second festival, following success last year.  The festival organisation –a volunteer charity – has the following aims:

  • To provide a high quality showcase for new ideas on politics, culture and activism in Northern Ireland
  • To encourage the participation of under-represented groups in political/cultural debate and discussion
  • To stimulate reflection and debate on difficult and controversial issues
  • To promote free speech.

Solid accountability in NZ public sector despite softening CPI

11 March 2016

The Office of the Auditor-General has published Public sector accountability through raising concerns – a review of its 2014/15 work programme on Governance and Accountability.  The findings are generally complimentary about central government, noting that a  common commitment to transparency and accountability influences the special character of public management in New Zealand.

Public sector accountability is built on principles of transparency, integrity, and fairness. The OAG considers that accountability is critical to the trust between an individual and the State. Being accountable means public entities taking responsibility for their actions, openly reporting on what they do, providing specific information when asked, welcoming scrutiny, and being responsive when challenged. Trust and confidence flow from  the way people can raise concerns directly with the relevant public entity and if dissatisfied can ask an independent and appropriately accountable agency to look into their concerns. The review identified accountability functions across central government,  the interaction of agencies and those accountability functions and “about 400 different ways in which people can make a complaint or raise a concern”.

Trust and confidence flow from  the way people can raise concerns directly with the relevant public entity and if dissatisfied can ask an independent and appropriately accountable agency to look into their concerns. The review identified accountability functions across central government,  the interaction of agencies and those accountability functions and “about 400 different ways in which people can make a complaint or raise a concern”. Interestingly when there is increasing focus on the participation of civil society in Open Government, the review makes only one passing reference to the part it should play in public sector accountability.

According to the Auditor-General, “… we deserve our country’s relatively strong reputation for accountability and transparency. This is a tribute to the hard work and commitment of our politicians, public servants, the media, the accountability of public entities.”

Today also marks a different take on transparency.  On 11 March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev took charge of the Kremlin.  He introduced glasnost – the policy of openness – and the perestroika political and economic reforms which in the face of growing nationalist movements, accelerated the unravelling of the Soviet Union.



Skirmishing in the Bay of Plenty backcountry

10 March 2016

Four police officers were wounded by gunfire yesterday following a cannabis harvesting operation in the Bay of Plenty.  Shots had earlier been fired at a supporting helicopter.  Police presumably were then seeking to isolate and disarm anyone involved and to follow through on measures to keep the peace. No doubt we will soon learn whether the injuries resulted from some sort of ambush by offenders, or through acts of bravery in the face of murderous conduct. Perhaps medals will follow.

An irony  is the timing and location of the incident.  March 10 is the anniversary of the creation in 1869 of the New Zealand Cross –  awarded for gallantry to locally recruited troops serving in the Land Wars.  The decoration was instituted by the Governor at the time who believed that the Victoria Cross could only be awarded in recognition of bravery by servicemen in imperial units under British command.

Tom Adamson, the first recipient of the New Zealand Cross was engaged in action at Ahikereru Pa to the east of the Rangitaiki River. The scene of yesterday’s  shootings is not far to the west of the Rangitaiki River.  Adamson who was serving in the Corps of Guides, and was wounded skirmishing in pursuit of Te Kooti, may not have lived up to the Governor’s intentions of recognising and rewarding honourable conduct.  In 1870, the year following his award for good and gallant services as a scout, he was part of the Wanganui contingent that sacked Waipuna Pa in the nearby Waioeka Gorge and took part in executing prominent captives.