COMMENT:

Barry Soper recently posed the very reasonable question, why does this Government need so many outside experts? The answer is simple.

We lack experts inside the public service doing the fundamental long-term work to offer reasoned, in-depth independent advice on important long-term national matters.

Why? Because this Government is on the receiving end of accumulated neglect by previous governments, both of the centre-right and centre-left. These governments have presided over a persistent and concerted devaluation of inside experts in the public service.

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Hence, if any evidence-driven reform is required, we round up the usual outside experts, we chuck some money at them, we give them a short time frame and we demand well-considered answers.

The particular vehicle governments have used to drive us into this ditch is the State Sector Act 1988. The act has led to the systematic corrosion of specialist advisory and delivery expertise at all levels of the public sector.

It has seen the rise of the myth of the generic manager – the notion that anyone with the basic set of management skills can manage any government body, whether it be an environmental agency, an economic agency, a museum or a hospital. You will find these generic managers anywhere you look in our government departments and agencies.

These managers have no expertise in the fields they are empowered to oversee. They lack institutional knowledge. They get no respect from their staff for their earned specialist competence because they have none. They have little ability to provide informed leadership and are in no position to perform informal staff training and guidance.

The expert knowledge of the staff in their teams becomes a threat to them: it risks upsetting the minister, which is the kiss of death to a thrusting ambitious generalist.

Generic managers don't know the nuts and bolts of their organisations, their idiosyncratic strengths and their weaknesses. Consequently they manage ignorantly and they manage upwards, keeping a tight control on information coming down from further up the hierarchy, since this is one of their few points of systemic leverage.

In addition to trading in information, their other specialist expertise is in restructuring, which consequently becomes habitual and develops a life of its own. Restructuring kills valuable networks, eliminates valuable institutional knowledge and demoralises staff.

Over time the institution's collective ability to offer reasoned advice becomes corroded.

The problem of the devaluation of expertise, reasoned thought and informed policy advocacy in government is endemic.

It can be seen at the very top. For example, the head of the Government's largest economic agency, MBIE, has a background not in economics but in service delivery and human resources. The person running Te Papa, our national museum no less, is not a person trained in museums and heritage, but previously ran a district health board. Not surprisingly, he's currently restructuring.

The role of the Chief Archivist, the custodian of a core part of our national memory, has been humiliatingly reduced to a lowly third tier manager in the Department of Internal Affairs. The current incumbent has a background in information technology, not archives.

We've just appointed a new person to run the Ministry of Primary Industries, a role which requires advising government on complex policy issues dealing with interactions involving agriculture, science, economics and the environment. His most recent experience is the successful running of a delivery institution which locks up lots of New Zealanders.

I am sure these are all well intentioned people, but intentions are not the issue here. The issue is what is being valued as relevant expertise.

The Government is soon to release a consultation paper on the reform of the State Sector Act. As part of the problem definition, I hope this document will acknowledge the fundamental canker at the heart of the modern public service – a disrespect for specialist knowledge, be that subject knowledge or institutional knowledge.

Our public service still has the capacity to act as a willing and loyal secretariat to the government of the day. But it has lost a considerable amount of its capacity to think independently and to advise, in a fashion that is not only free and frank but also well-informed.

One former senior public servant memorably summed up the changes within the public service following the State Sector Act as follows: "We have gone from a mandarin to a valet public service".

Our public servants can park the car but have lost the ability to advise us on where we should be driving it. We can and should do better.

Dr Simon Chapple is director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.