Treasury stuck in its ways - stakeholders

By Paul McBeth

Former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Treasury is influential but is stuck its ways and sends too many whipper-snappers to meetings, according to a survey of the department's stakeholders.

About 83 percent of stakeholders, most of whom identified as public servants, see the Treasury as an influential agency, with about 76 percent saying they're confident the department's staff is doing a good job, according to Colmar Brunton research conducted last year. The department's role as a central agency, its oversight of the government's finances and expenditure, and its intellectual capacity were cited as reasons behind its influence.

Some departments also found the Treasury fronted meetings with junior analysts when a more senior staff member would be appropriate. Low-level Treasury analysts were granted too much autonomy and were viewed as having too much influence on the outcome of fiscal decisions, by some stakeholders.

The department's mandarins didn't score so well either in critical thinking, with only 46 percent of respondents agreeing the Treasury challenges thinking on critical issues and just 27 percent saying the department delivers innovative solutions to difficult problems.

"Some senior external partners feel that the Treasury's thinking and economic assumptions can sometimes lack real life practicality,'' the report said. "There are occasions when the Treasury is perceived to be inflexible in its views and approach.''

The August report, which was published on the Treasury's website last week, coincided with the appointment of Gabriel Makhlouf as the department's secretary. His predecessor, John Whitehead, spent eight years at the helm before taking up a role as an executive director at the World Bank in Washington.

While the Treasury was seen as a leader in the public sector and with Cabinet Ministers, eclipsing the State Services Commission, it had less clout in the private sector and outside Wellington.

The department is one of the few that has received a bigger budget since the National-led administration took the government benches in 2008 and started clamping down on public spending.

Stakeholders were impressed by the department's ability to cope with short-term emergency issues, such as the Canterbury earthquakes and finance sector's collapse, but were less enamoured of the way it articulates long-term economic policy initiatives.

Similarly, the Treasury was seen as strong in running the ruler over fiscal policy, but less astute at formulating a vision for economic growth.

"On fiscal matters the Treasury is often seen as the 'hand-brake' whereas economic growth requires a strategy of `looking forwards and collaborating with others','' the report said.

- BusinessDesk

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