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Kibblewhite: stewardship challenges for today’s public service leaders

Stewardship for public sector leaders may sound simple enough, but deceptively so, warns New Zealand’s head of policy profession. Making decisions for the future is by definition uncertain, and actions taken today may never see results, either in risks or rewards. A tall order when costs are upfront and consume limited public resources.

Andrew Kibblewhite, who is also the chief executive of the NZ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, addressed a forum on improving intergenerational governance last month, detailing his picks for the three main stewardship challenges that the sector faces.

How can we ensure our institutions are strong?

The onus on public sector chief executives, Kibblewhite says, is to not only think about the immediate needs of their departments and the government of the day, but also the medium and long-term health of a range of public institutes and foundations. This including the legislation administered by their portfolios, the collective interests of government and their ability to provide advice to successive or future governments.

“And as NZ Trade and Enterprise will tell you New Zealand’s reputation for high integrity systems, for fair dealing is every bit as valuable to our national brand as our clean green image. This reputation doesn’t come about by accident. It comes about in part from stewardship, from long investment in doing things right – even when short term expediency would have us take an easier path.”

Such reputations are hard won and easily lost, Kibblewhite warns, so public service leaders but be actively diligent. “What does this mean day to day? It means that we understand and practice the provision of free, frank and fearless advice; that we jealously guard our reputation for political neutrality; that we continue to demonstrate the value of independent, merit-based appointments.”

Being mindful of the service relationship to both citizens and ministers, Kibblewhite says public service leaders must be conscious of and prepared to discuss the trade-offs being made between their duty in legislation to stewardship of institutions for future governments and their responsibilities to their current minister.

“Like all trendy ideas we need to guard against social investment just becoming the new black.”

The bible of this endlessly complex relationship (in most Westminster democracies) is the Cabinet Manual. NZ’s guiding cabinet document is getting long in the tooth given the public administration and political changes over the past 10 years. Kibblewhite says an update to the Cabinet Manual is coming soon that will reinforce guidelines for ensuring good governance, but also provide greater support for the provision of free and frank advice to ministers.

Minister generally aren’t the enemy of good governance, according to the policy profession head, who praised the bipartisan support they’ve seen in New Zealand. “They revise and traditionally adopt the Cabinet Manual when they come to government. And in my experience they mainly respect rigorous advice – even when it leads to uncomfortable recommendations.”

Policy capability that is cutting-edge

New Zealand’s Policy Project recently released three frameworks for improving policy advice, focusing on capability, quality and skills. At the time of the launch, former prime minister John Key talked about the inclusion of longer-term perspectives in both supply side and the demand side of free and frank advice.

Kibblewhite says they’ve seen promising progress from the roll-out of those frameworks in policy departments across the country:

“We already have some good examples of system stewardship. I would note the way Treasury maintained its expertise in superannuation settings even when there was no current appetite for advice on that subject. Or the way the Ministry of Social Development was able to step up quickly with deep expertise when the government sought urgent advice on child poverty after the 2014 election.”

Similarly, in the regulatory space, departments now prepare regulatory management strategies which will be co-ordinated into an overall system view supported by the Treasury. Kibblewhite warns it is far too easy to let regulatory regimes fall into disrepair, but this work will help prevent that from happening.

The top mandarin says his great fear as head of the policy profession is that the policy community will rest on its laurels; take too much comfort in modest successes or under-estimate the difficulty of keeping on the cutting edge of policy reform.

“Work on social investment is a case in point. Let me say upfront that I think the current work programme on social investment represents one of the most exciting developments in public policy in recent years. Internationally. But like all trendy ideas we need to guard against social investment just becoming the new black. Doing it right requires investing time and resources in collecting and cleaning data, in building information systems, learning and coming to grips with unfamiliar analytical frameworks, and of course accumulating and using relationship capital.

“I can tell a similar story about the policy community’s efforts to build citizen focused approaches. As a concept it slips off the tongue pretty easily. But to do it right will be, and is, a hugely disruptive thing. The specific needs of disadvantaged families and individual citizens do not, as a rule, fit easily into the well-honed processes of government departments who have to serve whole populations.”

“Making traction on these tricky problems will frequently disrupt ‘the way we do things around here’. So policy people need to be connected to front line practitioners and prepared to take on the inertia of the system.”

The strategic foresight community of practice in the NZ public service is growing, Kibblewhite says, but they need to share their experiences more. He urged policy leaders across government to get involved in sharing experiences and insights (the Policy Project being his preference of venue).

Anticipating and managing risk

Among Kibblewhite’s other responsibilities is leading the officials’ process that coordinates action in the national security system, known as ODESC — the Officials’ Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination. It obviously weighs heavily on him, particularly in light of the devastation from recent earthquakes.

“Perhaps the essence of the stewardship challenge in national security is that we know that we don’t know everything. Despite our best efforts to evaluate and manage risk today, something new and unexpected might manifest tomorrow. Or, maybe worse, something we recognise – or should have recognised – today but didn’t have sufficient bandwidth to pay attention to or that was driven out by higher priorities.”

“The more complex the conundrum, the less likely the public service is to find the answers, or be able to deliver the solutions on its own.”

ODESC’s approach is to make it clear which agency is the lead with each risk, and the priority risk mitigation within those. But spending all your bandwidth analysing individuals risks isn’t sufficient. Not anymore. The preference now is to build versatile response systems that can adapt to whatever risk materialises. That includes being open to engaging with all those who can help construct better understanding of risks: the private sector, NGOs, academic and scientific communities. It is much easier to engage with people who know you exist, he adds.

“When I started in my current job, our standard practice was never to mention ODESC – to follow the ‘no comment on national security matters’ rule well beyond where it made any practical sense. This approach certainly didn’t help build trust and confidence in the intelligence agencies for example.”

That’s turned around with websites and publications explaining current thinking, initiatives and consultation — even the ODESC handbook is online: “Because it’s not a secret that NZ has a national security framework. We think that the public would be reassured rather than otherwise if they could find out something about how the framework works. I would even suggest it’s a good read if you are interested in stewardship and risk.”

Anticipate the needs of tomorrow, but not alone

Kibblewhite summed up the shifts in stewardship obligations that apply across whatever section of the public service you belong. The ability to look forward and anticipate the needs of tomorrow. To face uncertainty and adapt and act, rather than blink and stall. Recognising the importance of listening to more voices, to NGOs, business and citizens, to a wider range of perspectives beyond the usual suspects.

“The longer the horizon, the more complex the conundrum, the less likely the public service is to find the answers, or be able to deliver the solutions on its own – indeed to even ask the right questions.”

“[T]here is no end of challenges, some presenting today, some lurking on the horizon. Challenges that can only be tackled with a deep and joined up effort, with a focus on the long term as well as the present, with a sense of stewardship.”

Top photo: Staff work at their posts at the National Crisis Management Centre in the Beehive bunker in Wellington during the 2010 Canterbury earthquake. Photo by NZPA.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.