Biggest NZ public service shakeup in 30 years closer with scrapped legislation, says minister

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday November 20, 2019

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The New Zealand public service will soon be equipped to better address the biggest challenges facing governments and the people it serves, according to State Services Minister Chris Hipkins.

The outdated State Sector Act 1988 will be scrapped and replaced with a new Public Service Act, which will signal the “most significant change in the public service in 30 years”, Hipkins said, after a bill was brought to NZ Parliament on Monday.

The reforms will lead to the establishment of interdepartmental boards, or “joint ventures”, comprised of chief executives from relevant government agencies. The boards will report to a single minister, and will have the power to collaboratively deal with high priority issues. They will have the ability to employ staff, enter into contracts, and administer appropriations, and public servants from across departments and agencies will be deployed when needed.

The minister said the new bill would “future proof” the public service to ensure it operates with integrity, while meeting the changing expectations of the community.

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

“The State Sector Act 1988 was designed for its time, and since then there have been major social, economic and technological changes, many of them on a global scale,” he said in a statement. 

“While the current act has provided some benefits to efficiency and effectiveness at the agency level, it can no longer support the way modern public services need to be delivered.”

The bill notes that the 1988 act does not mention the Treaty of Waitangi (te Tiriti o Waitangi), or the relationships between Māori and the Crown other than employer requirements. Changes will include explicit recognition of the role of the public service in supporting the Crown in its relationships with Māori under the treaty, and confirms that public service leaders are “responsible for developing and maintaining the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives”. The Public Service Commissioner must also recognise the “good employer” requirements in relation to Māori.

Hipkins posed the argument for a new, more flexible act earlier this year, stating it would foster a “unified public service”, while also allowing public servants to “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”.

His argument remains, with Hipkins stating the new act would allow the NZ Public Service to better respond to specific issues and improve service delivery, and would help public servants move between agencies, setting the foundations for future-focused leadership. He said the new act would clearly establish the “purpose, principles, and values of an apolitical Public Service”, including free and frank advice, and merit-based appointments.

READ MORE: NZ opposition: public service reform plans ‘a recipe for bloated bureaucracy’

The bill also calls on the Public Service Commissioner to create an official public service leadership team, which would collaborate to provide strategic leadership spanning the whole of the public service. The commissioner would also work with public service leaders to develop a strategy for senior leadership and management capability, and a second statutory Deputy Public Service Commissioner would be appointed.

A new type of chief executive would also be established, known as a functional chief executive. They would be responsible for specific functions within a department. 

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