The machinery of government generally works quietly behind the scenes of the more visible Beehive politics that we associate with how this country is run. We're used to the PM and ministers making announcements or explaining what is happening in portfolios, but for every portfolio there's a group of government employees working behind the scenes, delivering services and providing advice. The way this machinery of government is structured and operates has a huge impact on our lives as citizens – and it also significantly affects politics.

Yesterday, I covered some of the current criticisms of the public service – see: Problems in the public service. Today's column looks at the reforms the new government is currently carrying out, and planning for the future. It could amount to the biggest shakeup of the machinery of government for three decades.

Reintroducing a "career public service"

Out of the blue, there was a major announcement last week of a job swap for some of the country's top senior public servants. In an unprecedented move by the State Services Commission, there was a shuffle around of some of the people running government departments such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – see Tracy Watkins' Upheaval in public service after sweeping changes.

Richard Harman wrote that the reorganisation was "believed to be the most comprehensive reshuffle of top public service management ever", and his column explained how the announcement was actually part of a much larger reform process that is about to hit the public service – see his important column, The politics behind the big public service top jobs reshuffle.

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State Services Minister Chris Hipkins is determined to shake up the way that the public service works, and part of this agenda is to return the machinery of government to "a more unified old-style public service" in which "career public servants" shift easily between agencies.

Hipkins explains this in Harman's article: "The idea of a career public service where people could work in a number of different agencies over the course of their public service career is one that we want to restore… It shouldn't be that you work for just one agency; you are actually working for the public service."

In contrast, Harman says, the previous National government was developing the notion "that people could come in from the private sector to run Government departments."

Hipkins justified the recycling of CEOs, saying "What it does say is that we have got talent at the top end of the public service that we risk losing if we just go through a cycle of vacancy and appointment every time whereas the ability to keep talent by moving it around is something we definitely want to do more of."

Criticism of the reshuffle as "jobs for the boys"

Some commentators were impressed with Chris Hipkins and the State Services Commission using their powers under the State Sector Act 1988 to reorganise the five CEOs without having to go through the usual process of advertising and interviewing for all the separate positions. For example, veteran political journalist Bob Edlin declared it a "masterstroke" – see: State services: what's behind the "upheaval"?.

Others were outraged – especially because the reshuffle didn't involve any women who currently run government departments. Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue pointed out that women make up 43 per cent of public service chief executives (13 of the 30 CEOs), but none of these women were reshuffled. Blue was reported as saying "she had spoken with at least one woman public sector chief executive who was unhappy with the reshuffle" – see RNZ's Public sector reshuffle: 'Musical chairs for the boys'.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes justified the reshuffle as being "to ensure we retain strong, experienced leadership and continue to drive important transformation programmes under way across the public service". RNZ reported that "Blue said she totally rejected that statement and got very angry when she read it."

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes justified the reshuffle as being
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes justified the reshuffle as being "to ensure we retain strong, experienced leadership." Photo / Mark Mitchell

Furthermore, Blue announced that the Human Rights Commission was putting the State Services Commission on notice over the next round of CEO appointments, and "she would be watching the process closely to ensure it is fair and transparent, and run by a gender-based selection panel."

Researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw also spoke out about the "unacceptable" CEO appointments, implying sexism was at fault, and declaring it a "classic move from the old boys club" – see her analysis: Public CEO reshuffle: Why are only men's hands safe hands?.
The Minister then stepped in, asking critics to "judge the commission on the end point, not every move along the way" – see RNZ's Minister defends controversial public service reshuffle.

How does Chris Hipkins want to shakeup the public service?

To get a better picture of what Chris Hipkins plans for the public service, it's well worth reading Richard Harman's February article: Hipkins planning radical changes to public service. In this, Harman reports on the huge reform coming, how government departments are set to be abolished or merged, and how Hipkins wants public service fragmentation to be fixed by a new "joined-up government" that uses much better ways of measuring performance.

This article conveys that Hipkins is not happy with the current structure of the public sector and the way that each agency attempts to achieve results – he is quoted saying: "at the moment in the hierarchical way the public sector is structured under the State Sector Act you have a Chief Executive at the top who is responsible for delivering a certain range of outputs, not outcomes, just outputs so that is what they focus on… If you want to move the public sector from an output to an outcome focus you have actually got to join it all up."

In terms of the debate over "outcomes" and "outputs" and the fragmentation of government agencies, Hipkins provides the example of the previous government's target of "reducing reoffending". He says the accountability wasn't clear: "Is it Corrections' job, it is MSD's job, is it the Police's job… it really does require a joined-up approach to deliver lower reoffending."

And not only does the minister want to radically redefine the way the public sector measures its performance, he's very keen to make much more use of digital information: "Hipkins is clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities that big data offers Government and he even suggests that the Government, like the private sector, could buy in data from outside providers like Facebook."

Another excellent article and discussion of Hipkins' reform agenda was published in Victoria University's Policy Quarterly journal by Colin James – see: Reforming the public sector and Parliament: Chris Hipkins' goals. In this, James discusses Hipkins' desire to de-politicise government agencies, reform crown entity governance, and produce "joined-up" government that better serves citizens.

In terms of Hipkins' ideals of a joined-up public service that is citizen-centred, James reports on the example of the "registration of a birth. That once involved up to six or seven different departments. Now the registration automatically issues the child a tax number and health system number and other registrations."

A less deferential and subservient public service is envisaged by Hipkins. James reports that "Hipkins shares commentators' and some officials' concerns that public servants have for a couple of decades focused too tightly on serving their ministers and too little on also keeping in mind, and thus serving, the wider and future interests and needs of the public."

For more on this, see Sam Sachdeva's recent article, Government needs more hard-hitting advice: Minister. This reports that "Hipkins says public servants should provide more candid advice to the Government, encouraging ministers to 'embrace disagreement' in the name of better policy."

And Colin James has two further articles in which he discusses what might happen to government departments under the new government – see: Is public service working for MPs or the public? and Has service to the public become servility to ministers?.

James also accepts that there's a very good chance that all of Chris Hipkins' reforming zeal and plans may come to nothing, especially once reality kicks in and various barriers are raised to prevent change. But he's optimistic, because of the generational change that is present in the new government that affords them a whole new mindset and openness to change: "Post-baby-boomers are not locked into 1980s market-liberal economics or new public management."

But it's worth considering whether a "restructuring binge" can produce worse results for public agencies. AUT's Julienne Molineaux provides one case study of an agency that has been subject to "constant restructurings" or "redisorganisation", and suggests we must be careful about an "addiction" to change – see: An unlikely political football.

Finally, with Chris Hipkins wanting a return to some elements of the past public service, it's worth a trip down memory lane to see how playwright Roger Hall once satirised New Zealand's government department culture – watch the first 1981 episode of Gliding On.