The structure and legal basis of the Wellington bureaucracy may be among the most boring political topics but it is important right now to pay attention.
The coalition is promising the biggest shake-up of the public service since the landmark State Sector Act 1988.
This is probably not before time. The 1988 Act imagined a politically neutral public service, imbued with the spirit of service to the community and driven by a culture of excellence and efficiency, while providing free and frank advice to ministers and then faithfully implementing the policy decisions of the elected Government.
Two things have undermined that vision.
The first is the creep of the "no surprises" rule. In terms of its abuse, each government has been worse than the one before, so that it now operates as a Beehive veto even of bureaucrats performing functions legally required to be exercised independently.
Resetting the relationship between ministers and bureaucrats to that intended in 1988 would justify rejigging the Act.
But that is not all State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has in mind.
The second undermining of the 1988 Act is related: the transformation of ministers from serious policy-makers into mere celebrities and spokespersons for the bureaucracy.
There was a time when those wishing to hold ministerial office spent their time in Opposition studying economic, social or foreign-policy problems; working with people with new ideas in those areas; consulting with party activists and other stakeholders; and then designing meaningful policies they believed would improve matters.
Matthew Hooton: Why Twyford must go - and my surprise pick to replace him
Matthew Hooton: Who's really lining up for Simon Bridges' job?
Ideally these were published as manifestos.
Sometimes they were kept hidden. But new governments were elected with a clear policy agenda, about which bureaucrats would provide more detailed advice before implementing whatever ministers finally thrashed out working collectively in Cabinet committees.
The Key Government was the first to be elected with no substantial programme except for 10 carefully tested slogans unveiled at Sky City. National had done no serious policy work over nine years in Opposition and was in a sense saved by the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes, which gave it purpose.
Infamously, the Labour Opposition of 2008 to 2017 was even worse and we have now reached the ultimate in vacuousness with the Ardern Government restricting its role mainly to emoting and setting fanciful targets often indistinguishable from mere wishing.
The bureaucrats are then set the task of making these wishes come true, with ministers able to shed blame when they prove illusory.
Meanwhile, politically appointed "ministerial advisers" abuse the no surprises rule not to influence policy — in which they are uninterested, by and large — but simply to manage the flow of information and maintain the Government's celebrity.
Hipkins' proposals would formalise this arrangement.
According to the minister, who had no organisational leadership experience prior to his appointment less than two years ago: "Over and again I have found the basic departmental form inflexible for allowing different departments to work together to address complex problems which cross organisational boundaries."
An example, apparently, is the claim that it wouldn't be possible under the 1988 Act for the chief executives of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and Ministry for the Environment to work hand in hand to deliver the Government's goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
This of course is completely untrue.
To take the Clark and Key Governments' signature foreign-policy achievements — the NZ-China Free-Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — does Hipkins seriously believe these were achieved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade working alone rather than in close partnership with the likes of MPI and MBIE and its precursors?
It is perfectly possible for departments to work together if they have strong policy and political leadership from the relevant ministers and Cabinet committee.
Hipkins' solution to his alleged problem is to set up Interdepartmental Executive Boards (IEBs) and Public-Sector Joint Ventures (PSJVs) that will "support joined-up planning and budgeting and/or policy alignment on a complex cross-cutting issue" and "joined-up, agile service".
Leadership will be provided by a Public Service Leadership Team (PSLT) of senior bureaucrats that will "work as an executive team to support a unified Public Service" and "lead or move across boundaries". How these would interact with the dozens of working groups is not explained.
All this may sound modern and innovative — especially with the current corporate buzzword "joined-up" — but it does no more than define what politicians themselves used to do in Opposition and then as ministers through Cabinet committees and Cabinet itself.
Hipkins may be right that if we continue to elect governments as bereft of life experience, wisdom, intellectual curiosity, new ideas and management ability as Ardern's mob, then maybe it is best ministers confine themselves to school visits and setting heart-warming targets while leaving the real business of governing to working groups, IEBs, PSJVs and the PSLT.
Certainly, nothing in National's derisory policy papers this year on the environment and foreign policy suggests it plans to offer anything beyond a watered-down version of whatever the Key-English Government planned for its fourth term.
But Hipkins' proposals risk creating a further gap between voters and the policy being designed and implemented in their name.
He might also ask himself if he can think of any genuine social, economic or foreign-policy change that has been driven by bureaucratic committees rather than by political leaders working as a team and with a clear sense not just of where they want to go, but how they plan to get there.
• Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.