Global Government Summit 2018; part 2

By on 01/05/2018
The Global Government Summit is a unique event that each year brings together the world’s most senior public servants for informal discussions on common public sector challenges.

Over the years Andrew Kibblewhite, who leads New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has seen big changes in the direction of public sector reforms. At the 2018 Global Government Summit, he explained to other top civil service leaders how his government is now trying to find the happy medium between central coordination and departmental autonomy.

When Andrew Kibblewhite, now Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, first joined the civil service in 1988, the government was in the midst of a major reform programme. Floating public businesses such as the post office and railways in the “great deregulation of the New Zealand economy,” he recalled earlier this year, it was “seeing fantastic efficiency gains.”

Taking a similar approach into the institutions of government, ministers and top officials moved civil service finance management from cash to accrual accounting, set out each agency’s goals and responsibilities in output targets, and gave agency chiefs the freedom to decide how they achieved them.

Explaining New Zealand’s reform journey to top officials from eight other countries at the 2018 Global Government Summit – which brought together senior civil service leaders from nine countries for informal talks on the challenges facing governments – Kibblewhite pointed out the advantages of devolving authority to public bodies.

“Chief executives became very much the bosses of their own agencies, masters of their own destiny, and pushed forward into reforming the way that government departments worked,” he said. “Government became much more nimble, more flexible.”

A change of direction

Over time, though, the resulting diversity in procurement, operating systems and working methods whittled away at economies of scale and weakened collaboration. “We were locally optimised, but we became much more atomised,” he told his peers at the Summit, which was held in Singapore in February.

By 2010, a more fundamental reset was needed: government tried to strengthen cross-departmental working and system integration by creating functional leads, tasked with creating whole government strategies on topics such as property and IT. Meanwhile, recalled Kibblewhite, it sharpened up agencies’ targets to focus on outcomes and foster collaboration across departmental boundaries: “We picked them reasonably carefully to drive a sense of cohesive action, so you would only achieve them if you could get action across a range of portfolios.” And politicians took more responsibility for hitting these targets, publishing six-monthly reports on progress.

A few years on, he explained, New Zealand is in the “third chapter of public management reform.” At its heart is a desire to revive a sense of unity and common purpose amongst public servants: working to foster the “spirit of service” amongst government staff, leaders are “looking really deliberately at those things that join us together.”

Andrew Kibblewhite, chief executive, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand.

Rebuilding common purpose

Asked by Vichet Seat, Director of the Public Service Department in Cambodia’s Ministry of Civil Service, how New Zealand has promoted this ethos, Kibblewhite replied that nearly 1000 top officials gather every year to find ways of strengthening collaboration. The answers have included developing ways to “articulate what it means to be a public servant”; strengthening “system-wide requirements and expectations”; mounting a push to build a more diverse workforce; and creating channels through which staff can be redeployed around government “to meet the needs of the system, rather than the needs of individual agencies.”

On this latter point, he added, government is setting up career boards to manage talent across government: Kibblewhite chairs the policy profession board, “and we’ll be judged on how well we shift policy leaders around the system.” Further boards oversee operations and corporate staff, and the functions are gaining new powers: the goal is for them to be “more assertive, and prepared to clip the wings of individual departments.”

These reforms are being overseen by a State Sector Leadership Team comprising departmental chief executives, and specific leadership roles have been clarified: State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes – as the most senior line manager – is the formal head of the civil service; Kibblewhite leads on policy; and other chief executives take on a range of system-wide leadership roles. The group meets regularly, Kibblewhite explained, and focuses on “shifting this collective culture forward.”

Vichet Seat, director of public service department, General Department
of Civil Service Policy, Ministry of Civil Service, Cambodia

The people in post

Asked by Head of the Singapore Civil Service Leo Yip which skills the civil service needs to operate this new model, Kibblewhite pointed to changes in both leadership and delivery. Both Peter Hughes and his predecessor Iain Rennie, he said, “very explicitly made a point of appointing chief executives who are minded to work collegiately and collaboratively, and who see the bigger picture.” And on delivery, he backed UK Civil Service Chief Executive John Manzoni’s focus on developing capabilities in technical fields such as IT and procurement.

The renewed focus on outcomes built into this reform programme, it seems, sits well with the recently-elected prime minister’s agenda. “We’ve got a government that wants to look at the numbers, understand the real outcome indicators in the community, and then drive policy from them,” Kibblewhite explained: the new administration is legislating to define a set of child poverty metrics, require itself to set out targets against them, and demand regular public reports. “This could evolve to include environmental and other social indicators as well as economic ones,” he added. “It’s a very ambitious programme.”

The new government also came in with a “hundred day plan”, he said, including major pieces of legislation and service changes – and those goals have been achieved. Kibblewhite is now working on how to meet the administration’s next set of ambitions, and said he anticipates that a system of Cabinet committees will be key to delivery – catalysing cross-departmental action, and keeping public servants focused on the over-riding goals through the inevitable distractions and crisis of everyday governance.

Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, secretary of the treasury board of Canada

The wheel has turned

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau has taken a similar approach, commented Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, Secretary of the Treasury Board of Canada. Trudeau broke the convention that the ‘mandate letters’ informing ministers of their key delivery goals remained secret, publishing the lot; and he set out specific policy targets, covering everything from the legalisation of cannabis to improving the living conditions of indigenous people. Canada too is using Cabinet committees to catalyse action, she added, in a bid to “align decision-making to what we’re trying to achieve” – though, detailing some of the challenges involved, she acknowledged that it’s a “work in progress.”

Looking back over New Zealand’s journey, Kibblewhite noted that “the wheel has turned” – with current reforms designed to rebuild the “one public service” mentality of the years before 1988. But “it hasn’t turned on the spot: we’ve got a lot of traction, and reached a new place. We’re now unambiguously looking for the whole to be much greater than the sum of its parts.”

“The needs of the system,” he concluded, “are now more likely to prevail over the needs of the individual agencies. The trick for us is to embrace the change and the evolution, and to make sure we don’t lose too many of the strengths of the approach we’ve come from. It’s a pretty interesting time to be working in public management in New Zealand.”

This is part 2 of our report on the 2018 Global Government Summit. Part 1 covered an analysis of the challenges facing governments by Singapore civil service chief Leo Yip, plus UK civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni’s explanation of Britain’s reform journey.In part 3, two top Singapore officials set out their country’s public sector reforms. In part 4, BCG experts and top officials discussed the opportunities and risks around artificial intelligence. Part 5 explores how governments can reconnect with disillusioned sections of the population. And in part 6, top officials explored how governments can help protect social mobility and median incomes in an era of rapid technological change.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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