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Prime Minister John Key says several of Labour's "hug a polar bear" programmes are on the hit-list as the Government tries to cut costs.

Mr Key said his ministers had uncovered several ineffective programmes with the "nicest, friendliest sounding names" during detailed reviews of their departments.

"The 'hug a polar bear programme' will survive. It doesn't matter what recession occurs, it sounds like a really nice name.

"But the reality is if you look below the surface, the hug a polar bear programme might not do that much for polar bears. And if it doesn't, then we shouldn't continue to fund it."

Mr Key would not identify the programmes but said there was a series of them.

One example was the Ministry for the Environment's programme for a carbon-neutral public service, which has been cancelled as part of a restructuring expected to cost 20 jobs.

"It generated a huge number of bureaucratic appointments but a very inconsequential change if any to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions," Mr Key said.

More than 200 public-sector job losses have already been announced. Mr Key said more would go, but the majority of public servants would keep their jobs.

"We are not on a wholesale exercise of sacking government employees."

Mr Key reiterated that National's plan was to "cap the public service not to cut the public service".

State Services Minister Tony Ryall will today define what departments make up the public sector and the number of jobs in it - which the Herald understands somewhere between 30,000 and 39,000.

This definition is important because it will show which jobs and departments are within the cap, and which aren't.

Labour state services spokesman Grant Robertson said a jobs figure in the 30,000s was much lower than the number of about 45,000 that was often given for the public sector.

Mr Robertson said this meant a high number of jobs thought to be public sector would be outside the cap.

Mr Key's polar-bear criteria was a "lightweight" and concerning method to evaluate a government programme.

Mr Key said the "efficiency and effectiveness" of government was one of the most important ways of improving productivity growth.

"That means some programmes that weren't working, you have to stop those. And if they are not in line with the current Government's initiatives we have to disband those."