From rules and manuals, to Better Public Services and a spirit of service: you say you want a revolution, but maybe evolution is better

By Peter Debus

Friday November 8, 2019

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New Zealand’s Ardern government is undertaking once-in-a-generation reform to create a modern, agile, and adaptive public service, and affirm the constitutional role of the public service in supporting New Zealand’s democratic form of government.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes sat down with The Mandarin’s Peter Debus to talk about the evolution of public sector reform, how it will build on past innovations, and what it means to have ‘a spirit of service’.

Click here for more from this interview. 

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What inspired ‘spirit of service’?

When I joined the New Zealand public service in the early 1980s, it was big lumbering bureaucracy. Public service manuals, rules for everything, service-wide approach to everything, very bureaucratic. Focussed very much on following the rules and due process and that sort of stuff. In fact, in New Zealand, they made a TV comedy series about the public service called ‘Gliding On’. We can say it was a comedy, but in reality, it was a documentary.

If you think about it, that was a good thing, because prior to that in New Zealand, like a lot of countries, we had political patronage and preferment basically.

Then, in the early 1990s, there was quite a big set of reform in New Zealand. The economic crisis was a catalyst. That reformed the state sector and we went to kind of a market-based approach, market theories that sit behind the model. We kept some of the basic things like due process, free and frank advice, political neutrality, merit appointments, but apart from that, basically a government department operated like any other in the private sector.

The [reformed State Services] Act provides for there to be a chief executive. It doesn’t provide for there to be a department. The chief executive can hired or fire who they want. Everything is bespoke and highly devolved. And out of that, we got some real innovation, because it just unlocked the system.

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be here today but for those reforms. Trying to slog through the trickle of the bureaucracy. I’m too impatient. We got some real gains out of it.

What was that change like for those working in the service?

At the time, I was working in the old Department of Social Welfare. Where I started as a frontline basic grade clerk, I used to deal with the beneficiaries. In those days, it would take six weeks to process an application for benefit. You would come in for long forms, it would take us six weeks [to process]. You’d come in and beg for money to pay your rent, and food, and all the rest of it. Very demoralizing. Dehumanising.

Shortly after the reforms came up, because it kind of freed everything up, we could design the business processes ourselves. We could innovate, and we got to a thing called ‘same day service’, which is basically you walk in and walk out with the decision. So you know where you are, what you’re going to get, and when you’re going to get it. And you can get on with your life, your job search, or whatever it was.

Any downsides?

We lost almost completely any sense of system, or a single service. Everything became bespoke.

You determine the workforce, you determine the pay, you did everything, set up your own IT shop, do your own thing entirely. Chief executives loved it. Total autonomy, sovereignty, and all the rest of that, and lots of innovation and flexibility. But we lost the sense of system, of single service.

Since then, the world has changed, so yes it’s great that we can get same day service through New Zealand’s [version of] Centrelink [now the Minister of Social Development] and not have to wait six weeks. But these days, people want to go on their device and get all the government services through an app in one go. They don’t see government as being different departments. They see government as one thing.

You have a baby in New Zealand — there’s 13 different things you’ve got to do with government, and they don’t want to shop around. They want to be able to go on their device and just sort it out in one go. We are not organised to deliver that sort of service. Thirty-three government departments or 33 separate IT shops… just think about trying to join it up.

The model does not support working in a joined up way around the customer clients. That’s the first thing.

The second thing, when it comes to better outcomes, increasingly, citizens look to government for better outcomes. They want you to fix things in society — poverty, domestic violence, criminal recidivism. The first thing you figure out when you take any one of those outcomes and try and do something about it: there’s no one agency that can do that.

You got to join that as a whole, then you can do something about poverty. It’s about employment, it’s about housing, it’s about health. It’s a whole heap of things. So again, we’re just not organised to do that. So going forward, we need to change the model so we can actually get organised to do those two things.

So, we’re going to re-weight more towards the system, which is what the reforms will do in large part. Then we’ll also reestablish the system level stuff in another way. Because I think when we did the earlier reforms, when we gained a lot we also lost a little bit of our heart.

And some people would say some of those fundamentals to do with the public service have… we’ve lost our way a bit on them, you know, things say the same possibly… free and frank advice, political neutrality, merit appointment — actually, that’s not too bad in New Zealand — open governments, in particular long-term stewardship.

This idea that public service is the institutional memory of government… We need to think across time. Some would say we’ve lost our way a little bit on that.

Is that a gradual thing over a period of time? Because here in Australia, we have this view that New Zealand is much better at keeping frank and fearless advice than we are.

I think what we’ve done is we’ve kept some of the architecture around that. But I think we’ve lost the system-level stuff.

I’m on a plane going back tomorrow, and on the form they’ll say, ‘what’s your occupation?’ Well, I’m going to write ‘a public servant’, because I always do that. But most people wouldn’t. They’ll write ‘customs officer’ or ‘manager at Accident Compensation Corporation’…

We’ve lost that sense of connection with something bigger than ourselves, a sense of higher purpose.

I talked about ‘spirit of service’, because it’s something I believe in and I just started doing that in every single speech I give, it doesn’t matter what the audience says, or what context is. Always. Because it’s where it begins and ends with me.

That’s what I say when I’m talking to managers, even in the private sector, like the New Zealand Institute of Directors last year, and invariably I get a strong positive response. It doesn’t matter what the audience is, and that’s because when I talk about this stuff, I think I’m articulating something everyone believes in, or wants to, even private sector, citizens. They want our public servants motivated by a spirit of service, a commitment to service. So if you start from it, a whole lot of other stuff flows from it.

Better Public Services was the policy of the previous government. On this side of the Tasman, some of the spirit of that has been picked up, especially in New South Wales. What’s the thinking in Wellington about that now?

The Better Public Services came out of a thing called a Better Public Services Advisory Group. I was on there, but as a Professor of Public Management at the time, because I’d left for Victoria University.

One of the really important things it did was provide a focus on better services, and better outcomes … the need for collaboration, integration, alignment, across agencies for the system to be able to flex and operate horizontally as it does vertically.

One of the things that came out of that work was this notion of targets. Never had targets, so the government at the time established these 10 Better Public Service targets. Things like reducing criminal reoffending, for example. That was really valuable because it catalysed a range of agencies behind the target.

This government has a different view on targets, and is much more interested in their targets being more at the outcomes level. We’re taking a different approach, but this notion of having to work across the system, in relation to a service improvement, or an outcome improvement, endures.

When I was at the university, I wrote an article called, ‘you say you want a revolution‘ … here’s my theory of public service, the New Zealand public service reform I see as an evolution.

I don’t kind of see it as a reversal, or losing out or anything like that. I see it as is essentially a building. Different governments emphasise different things. How much is in the core public service? How much is outsourced? What is the role of the private sector in the non-government sector? In the provision of services?

Most governments saying this to ministers: ‘you will figure out you will be in government maybe one-to-two terms, maybe three terms, and you will figure out that actually, if you want to make a real difference, you have to work across the system horizontally as much as you’d have to down through portfolios — and the sooner you figure that out, the better.’

The sad thing is, most administrations figure it out too late. Because the longer you’re in government, the more the public expects of you. You can get through one term by ticking off a lot of commitments and you’re doing stuff; by third term, they expect you to have made the difference on child poverty. They expect you have to made a difference on the education outcomes, educational achievement. They expect you to have done something about criminal reoffending. You will not do that just through the education department or the corrections department. It’s a whole-of-government effort.

Watch for more from the Mandarin Premium interview with NZ State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes next week.

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