‘Empowering people with a sense of possibility’: GGF’s Leading Questions podcast with New Zealand’s former public service chief Iain Rennie

By on 01/06/2023 | Updated on 01/06/2023

Global Government Forum’s latest Leading Questions podcast features Iain Rennie, whose decades-long public service career culminated in eight years as New Zealand’s state services commissioner.

In this episode, Iain tells podcast host Siobhan Benita about how to develop talent in public services, his realisations about effective leadership, his work as a consultant to governments around the world, and why public servants should be mindful of the increasingly diverse perspectives of citizens. 

Speaking first about talent management and developing leadership capability – a focus for Iain in his latter years in the top job – he describes how a push towards decentralisation of technical expertise and people management to individual ministries in the New Zealand Public Service in the 1980s and 1990s meant that great leaders often reached their potential “despite the system” rather than because of it.

Devising and implementing a more systematic way of identifying and nurturing talent, Iain and successive leadership teams were able to “empower people with a sense of possibility” and create a more inclusive and vibrant public service. Indeed, women now account for more than half of the chief executives – but there is “unfinished business” says Iain, particularly around representation of the various ethnicities that make up New Zealand.

He acknowledges, though, that the process of reform in civil services is one that never stops “because the communities that we serve, they’re not static, and so we shouldn’t be either”.

Now working with governments all over the world, Iain is tasked with improving government effectiveness through consulting on budgetary management and public financial management systems – Iain was deputy secretary to the Treasury from 1999 to 2007 – and on civil service reform.

He describes his time in Armenia at the time of recording, working with young teams with a real aspiration to do things better, and his opinion that western countries don’t always appreciate the systems they’ve got and are complacent about what they’ve achieved.

And he looks back at the lessons from COVID, particularly his belief that governments “failed pretty spectacularly” when it came to wellness, citing the example of approaches to education during lockdowns which effectively “threw out” a lot of young people who have not returned to the system.

The frames put around government response to major shocks are too narrow, he says. “I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do around saying, ‘How can you get the benefits of focus and speed, but in a way that has a much more inclusive consideration of the key issues facing a community?’.”

Public servants must hold optimism that collective action can deliver real gains for society, he says. But they should also – and he is passionate about this – “be sceptical about how we use the powers of the state, and the inherent tendencies for the powers of the state to be used in blunt and heavy-handed ways that will marginalise people”.

Also touching on women’s tendency to underestimate their potential as leaders, bias in decision-making, his thoughts on waning public trust and the rise of mis- and disinformation, and the promise of technology to change public services for good, this is an episode packed with the kind of wisdom that comes only through decades of hard work, experience and reflection.

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This is the third episode of Leading Questions Series 3. The first featured South Africa’s cabinet secretary Phindile Baleni – ‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’ – and the second featured Noreen Hecmanczuk, senior adviser to the US federal CIO – ‘Serve your country – you will never regret it’.

Future episodes in this series include conversations with the UK’s former health department permanent secretary Una O’Brien and Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo, deputy director of learning at Spain’s National Institute of Public Administration.

Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top.

We are searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership for Leading Questions Series 3 and 4. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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