The Public Sector in New Zealand

Len Cook

In a democracy, the public service is more than the operational arm for doing what Ministers want. It is in essence a guardian of the constitutional foundations, processes and practices of our society ensuring the equality of all citizens in the way that they are regarded by the state. The public service is dedicated to maintaining the rule of law, furthering the public interest, and as such the relationship of the public service to Ministers is especially important. That relationship is determined by statute, and by convention.   The central pillars of the public service that were put in place over 100 years ago are;

– A politically neutral service

– A unified public service

– A career service in which decisions on appointments and promotions are based solely on merit and free of any political involvement or influence.

The public service is the repository of knowledge, research, assumptions and insights that under political direction inform the activities of government. As such, it exists to design and operate the programmes, institutions and laws that are a consequence of the politically elected leaders of the nation, and the policies they choose to implement.

This knowledge that is vital for advancing the prosperity of current and future populations needs to be openly available, as governments seek to;

– Bring the full resources of the country to bear on giving security to people in the face of the many known uncertainties and hazards that individuals face,

– Extend the opportunities available to the labour and capital of the nation.

The recent submission by the Institute of Public Administration of New Zealand (IPANZ) to the constitution review committee observed a number of concerns such as:

a) Failures of the parliamentary process to pay due attention (e.g. Building Acts 1991,2004) to the future implications of statutory changes in the instruments of policy;

b) The unintended consequences of policies that influence the long term decisions of citizens, business, local and central government;

c) The heavy costs of institutional change, including the loss of institutional memory;

d) Inadequate recognition of the complexity and connectivity of statute, institution and people on government systems.

IPANZ also noted “a pressing need for greater co-ordination and collaboration.”   The Institute observed that there have been major examples of policy and regulatory failure, inadequate and ill-considered legislation and a continuing inability to have co-ordination and collaboration among the various arms of state that is required in a modern economy. NZ has been caught napping on the technological revolution.”

IPANZ outlined what needs to be protected:

a) The capacity to provide Ministers with objective, quality advice, including the management of risk;

b) The commitment to act at all times within the rule of law including the protection of the rights of all citizens, with special attention to the protection of those who can not fully exercise those rights – the young, elderly and the infirm;

c) To subscribe to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, as individuals and as organisations;

d) To support an effective justice system;

e) The protect the fiscal integrity of public finances;

f) To protect the territorial integrity of New Zealand and the national identity of its citizens.

In the absence of a strong knowledge base and a well-founded capacity for foresight, shifts in the nature of the risks faced collectively by New Zealanders are unlikely to be well anticipated, limiting the options available to governments for their management. If the nature of future generations were to be poorly understood, then excessive weight may be placed on the interests of the current generation. This is especially important for climate change, ecological protection, retirement provision and preventable health conditions.

Some of the big issues of the next decade that governments will have to face include:

a) An understanding of the diversity of population change and declining populations that most localities in New Zealand will face, with consequent impacts of the capacity to afford schools, health services, housing, roading, public utilities as more investment will be required overall than if population growth were evenly spread around New Zealand.

b) How to organise the local and national operations of public sector bodies and local authorities so that they best act in the long term interests of citizens, especially the young and the elderly;

c) How to provide for a relevant balance between national, regional and local governments, balancing the benefits of scale with the value of having a strong civic heart in even the smallest localities

d) To increase the capacity for continuous learning by reviewing experiences that challenge received wisdom, such as leaky buildings, the global financial crisis and the Pike River disaster;

e) Manage the decline in the quality of services such as housing when the crown has moved from direct provision to subsiding targeted citizens.

f) Living better with the inevitability of living longer is essential for health services to remain viable and widely accessible to all. Coincident with the baby boom generation reaching retirement years, New Zealand has to be able to take full advantage of the large number of births that continue despite the halving of fertility rates from half a century ago. This means managing two divergent trends:

– The rise in the opportunity to apply very high cost medical interventions that increase the survival chances of particular individuals- Applying the knowledge we have of public health initiatives that will later reduce the likelihood of chronic multiple cause health failures as people age.

g) Work remains fundamental to the effective and fair operation of social security in New Zealand, yet globalisation, information technology, public policy change and the continued decline in New Zealand’s relative economic position has greatly limited the range and security of employment options open to people in their normal working years. Ironically, the same influences have increased the part time casual work opportunities that compliment receiving New Zealand superannuation, so that as participation of those over 65 have increased, for all others it has declined.

h) To find ways of remedying inequalities that have severe long term consequences for people’s health and welfare if ignored

i) Rethink how the state ensures that the costs of public services and the state’s infrastructure are contributed to on a scale and in a manner that recognises the benefits that taxpayers at all levels of income obtain.

j) Ensure that the operation of the state respects the rights of all citizens to a fair standard of living, to similar treatment by the state on all matters, and that all have the same opportunity to voice opinion about how the country is governed.

There are many more matters that need to be the focus of attention by future governments. Governments that are not able to thoughtfully face up to these issues are in danger of undermining the meaning as well as the role of government in a democratic society such as New Zealand.

Categories: Democracy, Public sector
Len Cook
About the author

Len Cook

Len Cook is a statistician who has spent some 14 years at the head of public sector institutions in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He was the Government Statician of New Zealand from 1992 to 2000 and National Statician and Director of the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2005. He became a Chartered Statistician of the Royal Statistical Society in 1973 and a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2005. Len Cook served as one of three Vice-Presidents of the International Statistical Institute from 2005 to 2009 and was a visiting fellow of Nuffield College Oxford from 2000 to 2008. He continues to contribute on matters of public administration, population change and official statistics and is the Past-President of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration.