Bureaucrats take note: Transforming the public sector must start with reframing how policy is made

By Melissa Coade

Friday April 29, 2022

Lil Anderson
Lil Anderson (Joseph Byford/The Mandarin)

A top Kiwi public servant has invited mandarins to reflect on why they joined the public service in the first place, and to draw on that altruism to develop policy and manage service delivery better. 

Addressing a public sector audience at the BiiG Conference in Brisbane on Thursday, Lil Anderson said most people in the room probably began their careers with an innate desire to serve the public, make people’s lives better, and to get things done. 

“Does policy help us to do that? Sometimes,” Anderson said. 

“But more and more, my observation of policy is that it’s been used to fit rules, it’s been used to set boundaries, it’s been used to protect us from picking precedent and leave the risk. 

“We often spend so long in our policy processes that we lose our way and we forget why we were doing it in the first place,” she added. 

The ANZSOG fellow and head of NZ’s Office for Māori Crown Relations told the conference that an over-reliance on flawed policy processes risked identifying the wrong problems to be addressed and assumed services and policy solutions served a homogenous citizen with the same lived experience.

“We use data that assumes everybody is a sausage; that we all live the same, we look the same, we do the same things, and we have the same life experiences,” Anderson said.

“The data can often be weeks or months old, and often we find ourselves undertaking analysis that is biassed towards the government objective or towards your organisation’s objectives.”

“We solve the problems too late, or we solve nothing at all. Is that every policy? No. But I’ve seen it enough times to know that it’s a lot of them,” she said. 

In the case of government services designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable people and disadvantaged communities, Anderson asked the crowd a pointed question – did any one of them know what it was like not to be able to afford a loaf of bread?

“How do you write policies to address poverty when you’ve never been poor?,” Anderson asked.

“You can’t learn that stuff from a computer, you can’t learn that stuff from a book, a study or from talking to your mates in a workshop.”

A self-described system leader and builder of capability, Anderson has more than 30 years’ experience working in the public sector. In her current role, she leads the system of Māori Crown Relations across the public service.

“I’ve been able to make my way […] up to the top tier of the public service in New Zealand working directly with ministers,” Anderson said, acknowledging her privilege and how important she views the mission statement of her role. 

“My agency was born three years ago, out of a desire to advance the relationship between New Zealand’s government and Māori people. 

“It’s an agency [where I’ve] appointed an all-Indigenous executive leadership team. It’s the first one in New Zealand ever, and I gave them the job not because they were Indigenous, but because they were the best people for the job,” she said. 

Anderson reflected on how the government response to some of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic allowed bureaucrats to pivot and address social problems that had gone ignored or put in the ‘too hard basket’ for a long time. 

One example she highlighted was how digital exclusion among poorer families was tackled head-on when the NZ education ministry implemented infrastructure that would allow students to learn remotely from home. The department learned in its efforts that about 80,000 NZ households did not have internet or a suitable learning device students could use to access remote learning.

“For the first time in forever, the Ministry of Education sent out subscriptions for WiFi to families all over New Zealand, as well as sending iPads to children who would never, other than that, have an iPad,” Anderson said. 

“When else would we ever do something like that? Why is it not an emergency that people weren’t able to learn that way in the first place?

“​​We need to create COVID-urgency around some of our other pandemics, like housing, poverty, crime, justice, and education,” she said.


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