John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Auckland should not lose services

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Bill English has balanced a budget without 'random amputations'

English believes the targets serve a greater purpose in changing the way the public service works. Photo / NZ Herald
English believes the targets serve a greater purpose in changing the way the public service works. Photo / NZ Herald

Auckland is being softened up for a reduction in public services. Something has to go we are told — inorganic rubbish collections, maybe — if the mayor is to keep rates from rising beyond his election promise. Aucklanders should not listen to this.

The Super City was given a mayoral office with more powers than any elected position in New Zealand local government has previously enjoyed. It is our first "executive mayoralty". The office has the power to draft the city's budget and the staff to oversee the council's operations. It has become obvious this week that Len Brown has not used it.

From the time he was first elected he has staffed the office predominantly with political advisers and publicists who churn out press statements and articles about visions and plans for some future "liveable city" in response to every problem that arises in the present.

Meanwhile, the monster bureaucracy created by the amalgamation of Auckland's previous municipalities goes about its work in its own way at its own pace, not noticeably troubled by any scrutiny from the office of the executive mayor.

People who have dealings with the Auckland Council invariably shake their heads in despair and the comfortably over-staffed, under-working morass of inefficiency they find there. Applications for anything take forever. Pointless, capricious demands are made. The culture seems to be to take the maximum time to do the minimum work and find ways to generate more needless work if possible.

When a city is asked to accept reduced services for more cost, in the middle of an economic boom, something is seriously wrong. Staff are suggesting the council will need to find savings by means such as ending inorganic rubbish collections and reducing library hours or park maintenance, to keep rate rises within reason. The council's limp majority will probably go along with this nonsense.

They should be asking hard questions of the mayor, such as, how has the Government managed to bring its books back to balance without reducing services people value? The nuts and bolts of public budgeting do not attract much press coverage. I didn't hear how the present Government is controlling its finances until I talked to Bill English for the book on John Key.

He and Key have had their differences but they agreed on one thing from the moment they came to power. They were not going to repeat the kind of arbitrary spending cuts that had made the National Government of the 1990s so unpopular.

They let the budget go deep into deficit in their first term as the economy slowly recovered from the 2008 recession. But early in this term they tried something different.

They gave the big-spending departments of health, education, corrections and social welfare some very specific, measurable service targets. The targets were as specific as, reduce rheumatic fever to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by June 2017, increase the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA Level 2 or equivalent to 85 per cent by 2017, cut the number of people who have been on a working age benefit for more than 12 months by 30 per cent.

While these things may be important in themselves, English believes the targets serve a greater purpose in changing the way the public service works. English, a public servant once, reckons most people who work in big organisations — and it applies to the private sector too — do not know what the organisation is doing at its front door.

Staff at all levels concentrate on satisfying instructions from a level above them and pay less attention to what is happening below. When politicians ask for savings from that sort of organisation they are given recommendations for what English calls "random amputations" of services.

If instead you give the organisation targets that redirect its attention towards what it is actually doing, it washes out a great deal of bureaucratic waste and can produce more for the same money. I can only report what he says. All I know is that they have the budget nearly back in surplus and we have had none of the anguish of the 1990s.

Something down in Wellington is working.

The Government also has the great benefit of a small department of state that sits on the eighth floor of the Beehive, works directly for the Prime Minister and can range all over the public service. When the DPMC (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) takes an interest in an issue, energy levels rise.

Auckland's executive mayoralty should be a DPMC. If Len Brown was up to the task he would replace his publicists and political staff with some hard-headed people to keep watch on every cosy corner of the council and see that the city is better served. That was the idea.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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