Only rarely do private companies change their names. More often than not, they do so in a last desperate attempt to revamp an image that may be viewed as too staid or has been debased by bad practice. And as often as not, the change blows up in their faces. That, however, has never stopped government departments tinkering with their titles. This week, true to form, that resulted in thousands of tonnes of frozen New Zealand lamb, mutton and beef languishing on Chinese docks.
The ultimate cause of this potentially costly episode were export documents that carried the name of the Ministry for Primary Industries, the latest guise for what was, most recently, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The new name in the paperwork accompanying the meat change apparently flummoxed Chinese authorities. What the Prime Minister deemed a short-term "hiccup" lingered far longer than anyone could have envisaged.
It would be easy to criticise the Chinese officials. It might even be tempting to suggest they are greater sticklers than their local counterparts. But that is debatable. New Zealanders are entitled to expect an equivalent degree of scrutiny from their officials, especially in matters related to biosecurity. What cannot be argued is that incidents like this must be avoided at all costs given this country's export-dependent economy. While millions of dollars of export meat was held up, there was every opportunity for damaging speculation to take root. All this because of a name change which, because of the potential for disruption, would probably never have occurred in the private sector.
The reason for the switch lies in the Government's quest for savings and greater efficiency in the public service. The new Ministry for Primary Industries incorporates the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Ministry of Fisheries and the Food Safety Authority. This move was, according to the Prime Minister, "very logical" in terms of the "synergies" that would flow. For the same reason, the Government has created the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment out of the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Science and Innovation, the Department of Labour and the Department of Building and Housing.
Unfortunately, such restructuring rarely delivers these synergies. It is simply a prelude for further reorganisation as another attempt is made to achieve these elusive gains. The only guaranteed outcome is confusion on each and every occasion. The Chinese authorities have been merely the most high-profile victim on this occasion.
Such moves are also responsible, to a far greater extent, for bewilderment at home. Not only is it difficult to keep track of the changes but in some cases there is the added problem of several ministers being involved with the department. In the case of the Ministry for Primary Industries, for example, Nathan Guy is the Minister for Primary Industries, Jo Goodhew is the Associate Minister for Primary Industries, and Nikki Kaye is the Minister for Food Safety. Who is responsible for what is not totally obvious.
The pursuit of savings and efficiencies is laudable. But too often changes that would be considered long and hard by private companies and then rejected are pursued with alacrity by government departments. They fail to recognise that the resulting confusion and the potential for unfortunate consequences, like that played out on China's wharves, can outweigh any prospective benefit.