Iain Rennie, state services commissioner, New Zealand: Exclusive Interview

By on 08/07/2016 | Updated on 08/07/2016
Iain Rennie, former State Services Commissioner, New Zealand

Iain Rennie is retiring after 30 years in the New Zealand civil service – eight of them in the top job. He looks back on his time in office, and tells Winnie Agbonlahor where he’s off to next

As state services commissioner, Iain Rennie holds New Zealand’s most senior civil service role. But as of Thursday 30 June, this job has been carried out by someone else. After a 30-year civil service career, including eight years at the helm of the State Services Commission (SSC) – the central government agency responsible for overseeing, managing, and improving the performance of government organisations – Rennie is making for the exit.

Over the last few weeks, he says, he’s been busy “trying to get everything sorted out” – including many interviews with job applicants to finalise a range of senior appointments. The next time he leaves a job, he’ll be more cunning: “If I’m leaving on Friday, I’ll say I’m going on Wednesday,” he jokes.

Alongside the general stress of tying up loose ends after almost a decade in a role, Rennie’s last months as a civil servant have also featured the publication of two reports critical of him and the SSC. Most recently, New Zealand’s Ombudsman Ron Paterson told the SSC to issue a public apology to former diplomat Derek Leask over the SSC’s handling of an investigation which suggested that Leask had acted unprofessionally.

Paterson’s report recommends that the SSC, which instigated the 2013 investigation, should reimburse Leask “for actual and reasonable expenses, compensate him for harm to reputation and review its guidance for future inquiries.” But Iain Rennie said that, while he accepted that the way in which the investigation dealt with Mr Leask “could have been better,” he did not “agree with all elements of the Ombudsman’s findings.”

Iain Rennie, Former State Services Commissioner, in discussion at Global Government Forum's Global Government Finance Summit

Iain Rennie, Former State Services Commissioner, in discussion at Global Government Forum’s Global Government Finance Summit

Second, earlier this month a report by Trans Tasman Media concluded that the ten cross-cutting government goals set out in the SSC’s flagship Better Public Services (BPS) agenda are now “regarded in some public service quarters as simply paper objectives.” A similar concern was raised by Nehal Davison, a senior researcher at the London-based Institute for Government think-tank, who took part in a secondment to New Zealand’s government. “During my time in New Zealand, I heard time and again that ‘agency-first’ behaviours still prevail and genuine collaboration around public service outcomes often lies at the rhetorical level, rather than reality,” she wrote in March.

Rennie accepts that things aren’t perfect, but argues that progress is afoot: “There is a real tension in most public management systems – and ours is a classic – between organisations focusing on doing key tasks, and the need to purposefully collaborate with others. But changing cultures is a long process. Do I think it’s fair to say that the working together is not fully embedded across the state services in New Zealand? I’d accept that as a critique. Would I accept that the direction of travel around a focus on outcomes and better results has been lost? No, I would not.”

Asked what he is most proud of, looking back on his time as state services commissioner, he picks two initiatives. One is the 2009 launch of the Performance Improvement Framework (PIF) reviews of departments. The reviews, which are published regularly, are based on the assessment of an agency’s achievements and shortcomings by an independent panel. When Rennie first became commissioner, he says, “there was a wider cultural defensiveness about improvement, and improvement is hard because the first step is an acknowledgement that you’re not as good as you need to be.” The PIF reviews, he says, have “helped to begin to shift the culture towards a greater openness towards the need to improve and [an acknowledgement that] improving is fun because it’s about making something better, and most public servants want to come to work to make something better.”

Iain Rennie discusses government finance initiatives with Head of the Finnish Ministry of Finance, Martti Hetemäki, at the Global Government Finance Summit

Iain Rennie discusses government finance initiatives with Head of the Finnish Ministry of Finance, Martti Hetemäki, at the Global Government Finance Summit

The second initiative Rennie sees as a significant achievement involves his work on talent management. Under Rennie’s leadership, the SSC created the new post of chief talent officer and led a radical overhaul of leadership development in the NZ civil service. The SSC invested in a leadership assessment tool named Leadership Insight (LI), which provides senior officials with information about their own capability, potential and development needs, mapping them against universal core skills contained in the leadership success profile. With hundreds of officials currently going through the system, the SSC last month published some initial findings. For example, leaders are “strong in strategic thinking and planning, but can struggle to communicate, and lead in ways that inspire and convince others to follow.”

The analysis, Rennie says, offers “very rich sets of data about [the officials] themselves, which is leading to some individuals changing their expectations.” He says that “the data a number of women received about their potential has led them to revise up their aspirations.”

Women in government has been a controversial topic in New Zealand this year, following the publication in December of a report which showed that the gender pay gap among senior civil servants had grown from 8% in 2011 to 8.9% in the year to June 2015. The pay gap across the whole civil service was put at some 14%. Erin Polaczuk, national secretary of the Public Service Association (PSA) – New Zealand’s largest union, representing nearly 62,000 public sector workers – told Global Government Forum that PSA members felt disappointed at the lack of leadership the SSC has shown in trying to close this gap.

Rennie admits that because the government saw “consistent progress towards narrowing the gender pay gap for a while, we put less weight around re-analysing that issue.” Hence, he adds, “that progress has stalled in the last three to four years. And we’ve now started with data on what’s happening at a system level.” December’s Human Resource Capability report published gender pay gap data by department for the first time, in order to “sharpen the expectation on chief executives to understand that pay gap in their context and to work out what the most effective ways to close the pay gap are.”

The issue, Rennie argues, cannot be resolved “in a broad brush way” or with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. However, Polaczuk believes that there is one single way of moving towards eliminating the pay gap. She argues that pay scale information should routinely be made available by departments as part of their collective bargaining agreements with employees. Otherwise, she said, women effectively “bargain blindly.”

While Rennie agrees that pay scale information should be provided by agencies, he doesn’t think including them in collective agreements is the only way to do so. Only 50% of civil servants are covered by collective agreements, he says, and “agencies are having to think about what’s going to work for their whole workforce”. He adds that a lot of agencies already disclose that kind of information but that “some [could] provide more.”

Ensuring the information is provided across the board is “one of the ideas we are working through at the moment with agencies,” Rennie says. Other ideas include a “move towards greater use of name-blind recruitment practices.” The UK announced such measures last October for all roles below senior civil service level. Rennie comments that, while New Zealand “will consider adopting it at entry level” initially, it will “also want to be open about the potential to take that kind of approach at more senior levels and more technical types of roles.” He adds that “the evidence does appear generally quite solid that those kinds of practices do reduce biases.”

When exactly this will be implemented, Rennie is unable to say. But he’s sure that the momentum for change currently underway in New Zealand’s government “is going to continue after I’ve finished.”

“What’s important for me is that there is a clear direction of travel that we’re committed to going down over the next few years,” he says. “Obviously, it’s up to others to make the detailed decisions about what that looks like and how that’s rolled out.”

With no detailed strategy finalised on how to close the gender pay gap, does he feel he’s leaving behind unfinished business? “There is always unfinished business in a sense, because the system and the organisation – we’re all works in progress. What I’ve tried to focus on is to be very clear about some of the really important ideas that are driving us, because I fundamentally believe that ideas are really critical in evolving how we work and how we think about issues.”

Rennie’s ideas for his own future involve, first of all, a break: he’s planning a ten-week trip with his wife and son exploring different parts of the US, after which he will “put together a portfolio of assignments and roles” allowing him to keep working with public service leaders around the world. He’s not ruling out returning to New Zealand’s civil service again at some point in the future – “after all, I’m only 51 years old,” he says – but for now, he’s decided: “I’ve done what I can do in this job, and it’s time for me to move on.”

See also our news article

Watch Iain Rennie’s Five Thoughts For Better Government:

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See also:

New Zealand civil service seeking new education secretary and land information chief

New Zealand’s top official told to apologise to former diplomat by Ombudsman

Dr Jo Cribb resigns as chief executive of New Zealand’s Ministry for Women

John Key’s chief press secretary Sia Aston to move to New Zealand’s State Services Commission

Women in New Zealand to get new powers to make equal pay claims, under new proposals

Female public servants in New Zealand ‘working for free’ until July, due to pay gap

Research tracks gender equality among G20 officials

Katrina Casey announced as new acting chief executive of New Zealand’s education department

New Zealand prime minister John Key announces new top civil service post

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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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