Grown-up government: an interview with Iain Rennie, New Zealand’s former state services commissioner

By on 18/09/2020
Iain Rennie

Over four years working as a consultant to governments around the world, former New Zealand civil service chief Iain Rennie has witnessed the global slide towards populism. But in his home country, he tells Mia Hunt, mature political leadership, brave policymaking and continuing public sector reforms have retained the trust between public bodies and the population – leaving the government well equipped to tackle new challenges such as coronavirus

In Iain Rennie’s first Global Government Forum interview, published shortly before he retired in 2016, he made a comment that now looks remarkably prescient. “The biggest challenge for public services is to be agile in the face of really significant shocks,” said New Zealand’s most senior civil servant. “I’d say in the next five years, all of us are going to be tested in some way by a big shock, and our ability to respond in a nimble way will be one of our critical tests.”

We are now, of course, experiencing the biggest global health shock in a century. And while remote, sparsely-populated New Zealand was always well placed to avoid a serious COVID-19 outbreak, it’s fair to say that the country has passed the test. As of 18 September, it had recorded 1,458 COVID-19 cases – at one point, between June and July, it went nearly four weeks without recording a single new case – and 25 deaths. This compares with a world average, according to worldometers.info, of 141,958 cases and 4,431 deaths.

It has kept these figures low by acting fast and effectively. The government implemented a partial ban on people entering the country from 3 February, before it had recorded a single case; required everyone arriving into the country to self-isolate for 14 days from 16 March – prime minister Jacinda Ardern claimed these were the strictest regulations in the world at the time – and a few days later closed the border to almost all non-citizens or residents. The country went into lockdown on 25 March having recorded only 102 cases and no deaths, and has been praised by the World Health Organization for rolling out a robust testing and tracing system.

Rennie applauds frontline health and social care workers and credits the Ministry of Social Development and Inland Revenue with beginning to get wage subsidies and business loans “out the door within 24 hours of the policy announcement”. But above all, it is public trust in government that he puts at the heart of whether a government’s response to such a crisis is a success.

The governments and civil services that have so far done well, says Rennie, share an ability to mobilise the population. “You’re asking people to adopt behavioural changes and stay largely in their houses for two or three months, which is a very unnatural and difficult thing for most of us,” he says. “People are only going to do that if they feel government is, A, competent and, B, seeking to act in their interests.”

New Zealand has been praised by the World Health Organization for rolling out a robust testing and tracing system. (Image courtesy: Ballofstring via Wikimedia Commons).

“All of us need to stay humble about where we’re at. We’re certainly not through this pandemic by any means,” he adds. “But we’ve done well in New Zealand, and I think that’s partly a consequence of the general high level of trust and confidence that there is in government here. That trust – and I think it’s important for other countries to reflect on this – is really important in times of crisis.”

New Zealand has long needed to mobilise communities in the face of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, landslides and floods. And Rennie says the nation has been able to draw on this tradition during the current pandemic, just as East Asian countries have drawn on their experience of SARS to better deal with the public health emergency.  

Preparing for the proverbial ‘rainy day’

There may also be other factors at play in New Zealand’s apparent success, one being decades of careful public spending. “Over the last 20 years successive governments have worked hard to reduce public debt. That’s meant that we’ve been able to – perhaps more so than other countries – deliver comparatively higher levels of fiscal stimulus, because we haven’t faced that high level of debt that, for example, many European countries face at the moment,” Rennie says. “There’s a lesson there about the importance of using the good times to get your house in order and to prepare for the proverbial rainy day.” 

The other factor, according to Rennie, is the leadership’s belief in the institutions of government. The countries that have publicly backed and invested in those institutions over time have, he thinks, fared better through this crisis. “It’s very difficult as a leader if you campaign on how government does a bad job and you want to pull apart the institutions of government – that’s not necessarily the best starting point when you need to deal with a situation like this, because those institutions are absolutely critical to getting through this in a reasonable state,” he says. “Yet undermining the institutions of government is happening in many countries, and has done for decades – it is not a new phenomenon.”  

Focus of reform

New Zealand cemented its ongoing investment in the institutions of government on 23 July, when parliament passed the country’s new Public Service Act. The Act, which focuses on cross-departmental collaboration and on putting citizens front and centre, replaces the State Sector Act 1988 and is expected to deliver the most significant change in the public sector for 30 years.

Among its core facets, the bill gives public service organisations more flexibility to organise themselves around government priorities; allows civil servants to move more easily between agencies; aims to improve the treatment of Māori people; and strengthens leadership across the public service.

Rennie says the bill is consistent with the civil service’s direction of travel over the past decade: it preserves the advantages that came out of the new public management reforms of the 1980s and ‘90s, he says, whilst recognising that the government is increasingly trying to manage “really challenging cross-government issues that require a high degree of coordination and collaboration”.

“The bill aims to provide a wider toolkit to both governments and the civil service with which we can reasonably efficiently bring collaboration together when it’s needed,” he says. A number of the vehicles set out in the bill were being piloted when Rennie was commissioner, “so we’ve had the benefit of several years of experience which has now been codified in legislation.”

Achieving cross-cutting government goals

In his 2016 interview with GGF, Rennie conceded that while progress was being made, cross-cutting government goals weren’t always being reached, and collaboration between departments and agencies needed strengthening. These agendas are “still a work in progress,” he says. There are still strong incentives for public servants to focus on the missions of the agency or on the agenda of the minister; and while Rennie says these are important, he believes that they mitigate against cross-departmental collaboration.

Things are, however, beginning to change. “What’s been interesting to me since I left is that when I talk to public servants about how they’re going about their jobs, I can see them drawing more and more on that collaborative toolkit,” he says. “There’s greater ease about getting people around the table to work on an issue. You’re seeing much deeper relationships being formed, certainly among senior civil servants and civil servants in certain regions and localities, and that’s beginning to work its way into the DNA of what it means to be a civil servant in New Zealand.”

It’s a “really positive trend” he says; but like all cultural shifts, he believes it will take at least a decade to realise its potential. Public leaders will need to keep a careful eye on the reforms’ effect, he says, altering course as necessary: “I think we’ll come back in five or ten years’ time and think about the mechanisms set out in the bill and whether they’re being used sufficiently. That’s when the judgement can be made about whether these reforms are going to be effective or not.”

Take a step back

Having spent the last four years working as a consultant on civil service reform, public financial management, public policy and leadership challenges – serving public and private sector clients in New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Scandinavia – Rennie says he’s acquired new perspectives on his home country. On the plus side, he’s recognised the New Zealand civil service’s “capacity to make change. Yes, we’re a relatively small country and we don’t have the complexities of a federal system of government but there’s a real nimbleness and agility that comes with that. I think we underestimate that.”  

On the other hand, though, Rennie says New Zealand’s people “can be quite closed and at times uninterested in the innovation that happens elsewhere. One of the great things I’ve had the ability to do over the last two or three years is to work with people in the private sector, and it’s really quite striking how much time and effort they put into learning from others. New Zealand ­– and we’re not alone in this – doesn’t leverage enough from the learnings of others.”

The same is, though, equally true in the other direction. In his work around the world, Rennie has observed how established parties’ inability to tackle rising inequality has led to the rise of populist leaders who tap into public anger. “Populism doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he says. “Governments have failed many people in democracies for decades and have struggled to bridge the gap in inequality in its various different forms. Populism has been an ineffective response, but a response nonetheless to real issues, and we shouldn’t lose sight of what those issues are.”

“We’ve been fortunate in the calibre of political leadership in New Zealand: people who genuinely wanted to make this a better place to live for all its citizens,” he continues. “But by the same token, when we look around the world we can’t be complacent. We have issues that other countries also struggle with – like high and rising house prices, and reduced labour mobility. We need to keep working with urgency and momentum to address those, but with the confidence that we’ve been able to tackle other issues successfully in the past.”

Jacinda Ardern during a visit to Waitangi. Rennie credits former PM Jim Bolger with improving race relations in New Zealand. (Photo by Nevada Halbert via flickr).

As an example of these past successes, Rennie cites the work of early-‘90s prime minister Jim Bolger, who sought to address significant historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi – signed in 1840 between the Crown and Māori. “That involved significant resources, money and governance rights, and at the time it was not an easy political response. But it has been a very important response in terms of putting the trajectory of race relations in New Zealand on a positive pathway,” Rennie says, though he concedes it is one that “needs a lot more work”.

As New Zealand prepares for its general election on 17 October, the polls suggest that Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is set for re-election – in part on the basis of its sure-footed response to COVID-19. There will of course be other “significant shocks” to contend with, says Rennie. But it seems that New Zealand is one country in which political leaders have been rewarded for grown-up leadership, a long-term commitment to institution-building and public sector reform, and a willingness to address difficult and complex policy issues. And if the country remains on this course, then in a decade’s time a future generation of political leaders will be overseeing a still more effective and capable government machinery – and giving thanks to the architects of the Public Service Act.

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

Iain Rennie on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the most out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. Here is the video, and underneath it, an edited version of Iain Rennie’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

One of the really early learnings that I took as state services commissioner was to borrow the UK’s capability review idea that was introduced under the Blair government. That’s a key tool we use in New Zealand to improve the performance of our organisations and to understand how they can do a better job in the future.

Are there any projects or innovations in New Zealand that you think might be valuable to your peers overseas?

One of the most exciting things that we’ve worked on in New Zealand over the last few years is in the area of social wellbeing, in particular, how we can use anonymised administrative data and pull that together across agencies to create really powerful examples of citizen journeys across agencies and over time. That gives us a fantastic resource to help us understand what government looks like from a citizen point of view, how we can bundle services in a way that helps them, and how we can invest in tackling particular areas of harm which go on progressively to become bigger and more costly forms of harm for the individual or for society later on. That is, I think, a toolkit that any government can use in its context, and I think it’s certainly been one of the most exciting things that’s come out of New Zealand in the last decade.

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

I think that the leadership has to come from the top and it has to come from ministers and their interest and engagement in learning from their counterparts overseas. It has to be senior leaders prioritising the development of their own agency and using the capacity to leverage networks of civil servants across the world either digitally, or maybe in time in person, to learn and improve.

Most countries have quite a lot of training for civil servants and very often there’s a focus understandably on ‘within country’ experiences. A lot of those academies or institutions could, I think, be much more proactive about engaging academics or practitioners from other jurisdictions to really enrich the training that civil servants typically receive in the course of their work.

What is the biggest global challenge we face in the next few years?

The biggest challenge is how collectively we improve citizens’ trust and confidence in government. It  has taken a battering in many countries over the last couple of decades. When you look ahead, whether it’s climate change, demographic transition, pandemics, national security, all those issues require effective collective action to resolve them. And that’s not going to happen successfully unless governments have the trust of their citizens and civil services have the trust of citizens to implement what will be quite challenging policy changes. If we want the consent of people to make those changes, we really have to earn it.

What’s your favourite book or one you’ve read recently that you’ve most enjoyed?

Quite a bit of my work at the moment is working with senior teams on how they improve their decision making as an organisation. And one of the books I found really insightful in helping me with that work is a book by a British journalist called David Robson called The Intelligence Trap, which is subtitled ‘Why smart people make dumb mistakes’. It’s a really very insightful book about how all of us, and particularly people who are more intelligent than many, can have really poor processes or poor decision-making frameworks. That, I think, is a lesson that’s really applicable to many civil services. Civil services are fantastic because they can retain a lot of very smart people but we all need to keep working on realising that our decision-making ways can be improved.

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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