An unlikely political football

Julienne Molineaux

Economist Alan Maynard coined the term ‘redisorganisation’ for constant restructurings in the British health system; in New Zealand, the public sector gets restructured so often it has been described as ‘almost an addiction’. Often the tension is between specialisation and coordination, that is, between having several smaller, single-focussed agencies versus combining functions into one agency for easier coordination. The new government looks set to continue this tradition, promising to undo a number of the previous government’s organisational reforms. The big one will be separating out the component parts of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI): agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food safety and biosecurity. Some of these changes will be good ones – the small but important Food Safety should never have been bundled together with the large and powerful Agriculture.

The issues aren’t just about size, but separating out conflicts of interest, and recognising the loss than happens to organisations with strong professional cultures when they are submerged in large conglomerate agencies where the dominant culture is a managerial not professional one.

If the Labour Party’s election manifesto is honoured, an unlikely political football – Archives New Zealand – is about to be kicked to the opposite end of the field. The manifesto contains a section on ‘public services’, and within that, a section devoted to Internal Affairs. This is notable because with the exception of the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), no other government agencies are named.

The Internal Affairs policy includes two very specific promises:

Labour will

–        Commit to Archives New Zealand and the National Library being re-established as independent and separate entities outside the Department of Internal Affairs

–        Investigate the National Archivist being an Officer of Parliament.

Archives New Zealand has a long history with the Department of Internal Affairs. It started life there in 1948, where it languished, little seen and under-resourced until the mid-1990s, when it came to the attention of public sector reformers. What followed were a turbulent six years of reform proposals and actual reforms, each one hard on the heels of the one before, and several of the proposals attracting legal action. In the 1990s, watching the circus around the Archives, Michael Cullen argued in a conference speech that the organisation should not be subject to continuous review and change:

The policy issues involved are not, and should not be, matters of continuous revision and controversy. The underlying principles … have considerable durability and permanency. It is, indeed, of the essence of the archival role that it is about permanence and solidity, a firm historical, legal, institutional and constitutional rock to which the record of government and public affairs can be tethered.[i]

In government following the 1999 election, Cullen – a former historian who knew something about the policy area – and Archives Minister Marion Hobbs, reformed the Archives in a way that put professional values at its heart. The National Archives was renamed Archives New Zealand, given its independence from the Department of Internal Affairs (becoming a stand-alone department), a budget increase, and new legislation, the Public Records Act 2005.

And there things should have stayed.


And yet one of the first public management reviews launched following the 2008 election was into Archives New Zealand. In 2010, as a result of this review, the Archives was put back into Internal Affairs. Now it seems, it will yo-yo back to independence. The proposal to ‘Investigate the National Archivist being an Officer of Parliament’ is an attempt to entrench the main powers and functions of the Archives as answerable to parliament not government, which will also make it harder for upcoming governments and the State Services Commission to undo this reform.

Why should anyone care about this? We should care partly because the frequent restructuring in the archives policy area is illustrative of the frequent and wasteful restructuring of public agencies, an activity that consumes huge resources with little evaluation of their success. Explicit costs of restructuring – change managers, redundancies, rebranding and new hires – all appear in the accounts, but implicit costs do not. Implicit costs include opportunity costs, such as the loss of productivity resulting from staff preoccupation with the restructuring, rather than attending to their core work. Decreases in morale and loss of institutional knowledge are also not accounted for, enabling the costs of restructuring to be downplayed and the benefits over-sold. All the while large important policy problems (such as health and housing) go unsolved.

The restructuring binge Archives New Zealand has been subjected to goes back to 1994, when a consultant recommended a policy–purchaser–provider split for the organisation, as was the fashion of the times. But the times were changing and so shortly after, new reforms were proposed instead. Mostly these changes were to solve problems of the State Services Commission or the Department of Internal Affairs – and did nothing to advance the professional archiving goals of the Archives.

And this is at the heart of the problem in many state sector reforms: managerial priorities dominate professional values and the needs of the actual function of the organisation. Archivists are motivated by a strong professional ethos about the purpose of their work, and their preferred organisational design and placement within the wider state sector reflects the best way to achieve these professional goals. Because their professional values are stable over time, their preferred organisational design has stayed relatively stable, too. Meanwhile, the goals of the ‘manager class’ change every time public sector management trends change: from single focus agencies to larger multi-function agencies, to networks and joined up governance and a recognition of systems. In a few years’ time, it will be something else. In 1994 reviewers scolded the Archives because staff acted collegially with professional values at the heart of decisionmaking. In the 2009 review led by the State Services Commission, Archives New Zealand was described as a well-functioning department, but it was criticised for focusing on archiving instead of aligning itself with the [executive] government’s strategic priorities. This misses the point of archiving: as a policy area, it is about stability and continuity. The official archives of New Zealand should not change its priorities every time the government’s strategic priorities change. Additionally, it ignores the constitutional function of an official archive.

Archives New Zealand is the regulator of government record making, keeping, and destruction. It has an important constitutional role by providing the foundation of democratic accountability: records provide evidence of government activity and of citizens’ relationship with the state. Records underpin the Official Information Act, the work of the Ombudsman, Courts and commissions of enquiry. While the proposed enquiry into abuse in state care will presumably include personal accounts, records will also be used where possible to establish places, times, names and practises. It can be argued, from this perspective, that the Chief Archivist and the Archives should not be organised and rearranged at the whim of a Minister or the State Services Commission, but report directly to the whole parliament, as the Auditor-General does.

In 2010 I wrote against the inclusion of Archives New Zealand into the Department of Internal Affairs, and those arguments still stand. I also submitted to the Select Committee considering this change, pointing out that international best practise advocates stand-alone status.

Michael Cullen’s reforms were almost uniformly positive for archiving in New Zealand. In hindsight, choosing department status for the new agency in 2000 left it vulnerable to further meddling. Hopefully the organisational reforms promised by this government will be the last.



[i] Michael Cullen, New Zealand Archives Should Stay Separate, Speech to the 1998 Archives and Records Association of New Zealand conference, printed in Archifacts, April 1999, p. 55. Italics in original.


Categories: Public sector
Julienne Molineaux
About the author

Julienne Molineaux

Julienne Molineaux works for The Policy Observatory, where she is editor of the Briefing Papers. Julienne spent ten years working in a media archive, assisting researchers. While working there she did an MA in media politics. Her PhD from the University of Auckland was in public sector management and Julienne was one of the authors of the recent report The Governance of Auckland: 5 Years On. Along with five other colleagues, she co-authored a lengthy submission to the Commerce Commission on the proposed merger between the newspaper giants Fairfax NZ and NZME/Wilson & Horton.