UK civil servant jobs likened to The Hobbit

A British newspaper article has likened UK bosses parachuting into top civil servant jobs in New Zealand to the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey.

The article by a New Zealand journalist in The Guardian has warned off top public service workers after the sudden exit last year of two high-ranking civil servants in New Zealand.

British recruits Lesley Longstone and Janet Grossman have either returned or are returning to the United Kingdom after shorter-than-anticipated stints heading the Ministry of Education and Work and Income respectively.

The Guardian article, written by Wellington-based journalist Max Rashbrooke, says UK civil servants that may be successful at home "aren't always a hit overseas".

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said there needed to be greater consideration of making overseas appointments to "consider the unique complexities, demands and pressures of the New Zealand context".

"High level public sector management requires not only competence but a deep understanding and experience of the issues past and present," Ms Pilott said.

She said it was "fair to question whether [Ms Longstone] was armed with the right knowledge and experience" for the job and "whether she was given adequate support".

The Guardian reports that "it is often assumed that public managers can move seamlessly from one country to another, especially if they possess a shared cultural heritage and similar political systems.

"But these two recent departures rather give the lie to that idea - in particular Longstone's experience, which was marked by a series of disasters."

As well as failures of the ministry, the Guardian reports it was the prickly relationship with Education Minister Hekia Parata - "new to the job [and] is widely regarded as being out of her depth" - that contributed to Ms Longstone's departure.

The Guardian said Ms Longstone may have held senior positions in Britain but "apparently had no actual experience of running a department or the all-important matter of managing a direct relationship with a minister".

"Moreover, she had no personal knowledge of the way the New Zealand public sector works."

The newspaper said New Zealand's public sector was "quite different from its British equivalent", including much closer relationships with ministers and more public accountability for performance.

Internal issues in their Kiwi jobs may not have been "clear from afar" to Ms Longstone or Ms Grossman. "These issues might, however, have been picked up by people who knew the terrain better, including those who have made the cross-country transition more cautiously."

Rashbrooke writes that the next test will be Britain's former Cornwall county council chief executive Kevin Lavery, who has been appointed to run Wellington City Council.

"Lavery, whose time at Cornwall has been controversial, may of course prove to be a good appointment, especially if he has done his homework," the Guardian says.

"But if not, recent history suggests that he may end up, in the words of the Hobbit's original subtitle, going 'there and back again'."

- APNZ

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