Major New Zealand public service overhaul aims for a joined-up, “fleet-footed” government


New Zealand’s public service will undergo the “biggest shake-up in 30 years” which will involve replacing its underpinning legislation and, according to Minister for State Services Chris Hipkins, breaking down the lines between bureaucratic silos like never before.

“A public service that is more fleet-footed and can shift its focus to where it will make the most difference” is the end goal, Hipkins said.

The current State Sector Act 1988 will be replaced with a new Public Service Act to support major changes including the establishment of a series of boards made up of agency heads, which will be accountable to a single minister and receive direct budget allocations for specific jobs like reducing child poverty, improving mental health services or New Zealand’s contributions to addressing climate change.

Chris Hipkins

Public servants would be “deployed as required” across the system, according to the minister, who said the reforms would mean they were better placed to operate in “a fast changing and unpredictable context” marked by rapid social, demographic and technological change.

“When it comes to the really big and complex challenges it doesn’t work anymore to put a single agency on the job,” Hipkins said in a statement.

“These reforms will make groups of chief executives jointly accountable for delivering on complex government priorities. This can’t happen under the current Act.”

Informed by a public consultation process last year, the changes aim to support “genuine whole-of-government action – shifting agencies from working as single departments to working as one, unified public service, to quickly mobilise and tackle specific issues” and give public service leaders “collective responsibility” for the nation’s biggest policy challenges.

“We know the expectations and demands of New Zealanders have gone up,” Hipkins said, explaining the ideas behind the upcoming reforms in a speech yesterday.

“We know they expect to engage with government agencies and to access services in different ways. And they want what they want fast. Immediately. But it’s not just about moving with the technological times. As a country the issues we face have become bigger and more complex.”

The reform plan also promises to nurture a fundamental “spirit of service” within government, and embed long-standing public service principles in the new legislation, which has yet to be drafted and is expected to be introduced to parliament before the end of this year.

“Principles such as political neutrality, free and frank advice, and merit-based appointments are important [and] I believe these changes will have a unifying effect on the Public Service,” Hipkins said.

“They help safeguard the constitutional conventions governing the public service, promote ethical conduct, and enable cross-agency collaboration on services and outcomes for New Zealanders.”

The new legislation will also explicitly recognise the public service’s responsibility to help the government live up to the Crown’s side of the Treaty of Waitangi with the Māori people. “What is good for Māori is good for New Zealand,” Hipkins said. “The country is stronger when we improve outcomes for Māori.”

In the speech, Hipkins said the current model was far from broken.

“In fact, New Zealand’s public service has a strong, deserved international reputation for responsiveness to government, effectiveness and integrity. We are ranked second overall in 38 countries assessed on central civil service performance in the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index.

“Closer to home, the latest Kiwis Count Survey shows New Zealanders have increasing trust in the public service. Satisfaction with the provision of services is at a record high. But we know we can do better. The wellbeing challenges we’re focussing on cannot be solved in one budget – or even four or five. Public investment is a powerful lever for change, but it’s only one.”

Some public servants said they felt “a tension between their employment as public servants” and their desire to exercise a right to freedom of political expression during the consultation process, he added.

“The changes we’re making to the Act will reaffirm that public servants have the same civil and political rights as all New Zealanders to engage in democratic protest, be active in political parties and engage in civil and political debate, except of course if their work as public servants is connected with the subject of the protest,” said the minister.

“When the Act is introduced, the Public Service Commissioner will issue guidance on the rights and responsibilities of public servants. And it will address the rights of public servants to freedom of political expression in their private lives.”

The main reforms include five agenda items, each of which is explained more in a series of cabinet papers published by the government this month: a unified public service; strengthening the Crown-Māori relationship; employment and workforce changes; leadership; and organisational structures.

Another cabinet paper explains related changes to how the NZ public service operates in local communities and regional areas.

The opposition attacked the plan, saying it would be costly and cause too much public spending in Wellington, and said rebranding the State Services Commission to the Public Service Commission was pointless, although it supported some elements of the proposed changes.

Read more: NZ opposition: public service reform plans ‘a recipe for bloated bureaucracy’

Top image: The NZ government’s Beehive building, Wellington / CC-BY-SA-4.0 Michael Klajban.

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