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Earning public trust: Sir John Key goes back to Westminster basics

“You also have to be careful what you promise, and you’re at the risk of elements outside your control,” warned the former New Zealand prime minister, delivering last week’s Garran Oration at the Institute of Public Administration’s national conference, which was all about declining public trust.

 “It became very clear, very quickly, that only the public service truly understood how to formulate good public policy.”

Key, who won three elections and held office for over eight years, picking up a knighthood and an honourary Companion of the Order of Australia award, was referring to his big campaign promise in 2008 to stop the flow of Kiwis moving to Australia, which only increased after he took office. By 2016, when he retired from politics, his goal was achieved, with net migration reversed.

“Of course, that didn’t stop people complaining,” he said. “Now we were getting criticised for high rates of population growth, even though half of that was due to New Zealanders not going to live in Australia. So you can’t win.”

Key said that when government works well, it’s due “in no small part” to a “triangle of trusting relationships” between citizens, public servants and ministers.

His close political ally Malcolm Turnbull has regularly implored public service leaders to look across the ditch for inspiration, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, who hosted the conference as the IPAA branch president.

“Public policy and public administration are far more difficult than most commentators imagine,” was another thing he learned soon after taking office, when he thought a “jobs summit” with people from the private sector, unions and public servants would be a good idea during the global financial crisis.

“It became very clear, very quickly, that only the public service truly understood how to formulate good public policy, despite the good intentions of the other participants.”

He said he brought public service leaders in on more Cabinet meetings, “to get advice from the people who had the greatest knowledge of particular issues” and so the bureaucrats could see “where ministers agreed and disagreed” with that advice, and why.

“In fact, it was a little odd that public servants who had spent a year or so working on a particular issue, living and breathing it every day, couldn’t see what ministers made of it.”

Public service neutrality in the Westminster tradition must be maintained, but public servants must also respect the mandate of governments to make final decisions, and the need to do so even when the best course is not clear.

Key said he had witnessed very few leaks from his public servants. “The few times that was broken, however, it seriously weakened the bonds of trust and respect.”

He is also on the side of paying public servants “well” but admits it is sometimes hard to justify to the public (especially in times of austerity).

“But often the organisations they work in and lead are larger than most New Zealand companies. It’s critical for them to attract and retain talent that’s among the best in the country. We should work harder to help map out people’s career paths, and encourage greater cross-fertilisation across departments and agencies.”

Sir John encourages secondments between the public and private sectors, and says agencies should not be afraid to let relatively junior policy staff come along to meetings with ministers. How else will they learn?

“Their knowledge and enthusiasm will benefit both sides,” said Key.

Ministers need to be challenged rather than “surrounded by sycophantic advice” but at the same time public servants should “not relitigate issues again and again” as newly minted federal secretary Stephen Kennedy repeated later in the day’s discussions.

“Sometimes free and frank advice is hindered by concerns about the release of information,” Key said, hastily adding that he is “all in favour” of legislation like the Freedom of Information Act while quoting the orthodox view that citizens can’t be allowed to see which advice their government listened to and which it ignored.

But perhaps it is just this kind of Westminster tradition that should change, to give citizens more participation in democracy. Almost all of that advice is already contested, whether it is secret or not, and whether it comes from the public service, a mining boss or an expensive consulting firm. The issues underlying the vast majority of policy decisions are openly discussed by various experts, based on a wealth of freely available information and open data.

On the other hand, Key argued that despite the global public trust crisis that was the subject of the conference, his government bucked that trend. It even earned the begrudging respect of some New Zealanders who didn’t vote for him, or agree with his policies, essentially by going back to basics to marshal support.

“According to a survey conducted by the State Services Commission, New Zealanders’ overall trust in public services … is 12 percentage points higher now than it was in 2007,” he said.

“That public support is necessary to make changes stick. As a government, we tried very hard to keep our word with the electorate. We were consistent and up-front with New Zealanders about what we were doing and why. At each election, we sought a mandate for new policies we wanted to put in place, especially those that weren’t likely to be popular. We wanted to take the public along with us as we made changes, explain the reasons for them well in advance and implement those changes competently.”


A transcript of John Key’s Garran Oration is available on the IPAA ACT website. Top image: IPAA ACT.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.