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

By on 29/10/2015 | Updated on 08/03/2016
Iain Rennie, Former State Services Commissioner, in discussion at Global Government Forum's Global Government Finance Summit

Iain Rennie is responsible for hiring and developing New Zealand’s top civil servants as well as driving reform. He speaks to Winnie Agbonlahor about some of his most recent initiatives

Working across departmental boundaries is the holy grail of democratic governments, most of which are organised into vertically-managed ministries planned around the services required decades ago. If departments worked together more closely, governments could more closely align their policies, improving their effectiveness; they could reduce duplication, cutting costs; and they could plug the gaps between services, minimising the number of people failed by government. So these days, most ministers and senior civil servants recognize the need to build services around the needs of citizens, not service providers – but that demands much closer teamwork between different departments, reversing their tendency to lose interest as soon as citizens stray out of their immediate areas of responsibility.

Even when individual departments perform well, this fractured landscape impairs government’s effectiveness. So what would happen if departments worked together seamlessly, selflessly compensating for each others’ shortfalls and cheerfully passing on responsibility when another is better placed to get a result? What if they kept to a cross-government strategic plan, coordinating their actions without a thought to their own advantage? What if they built ways of communicating rapidly and responding as a team to changing situations, instinctively prioritising collective goals above their individual aims?

It is the task of Iain Rennie, New Zealand’s state services commissioner, to push his government as close as possible to that goal. And right now, a group of his compatriots are showing him how it’s done: the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby team, are through to the finals of the Rugby World Cup – fulfilling Rennie’s prediction, made in September that they would end up battling Australia for the cup.


State services commissioner Iain Rennie has succeeded in getting departments to work more closely together, a review has said.

The Kiwis’ strong teamwork goes a long way towards explaining the team’s success; and in coaching his country’s departmental chief executives, Rennie too is focusing on strengthening collaboration and engagement. He’s the head of the State Services Commission (SSC) – the government body tasked with overseeing, managing, and improving the performance of government organisations – and to further these ends, in 2011 he launched the Better Public Services reform programme. A recent review of the SSC praised its work, stating that progress “is tangible and positive” and that chief executives are “increasingly adopting a collaborative system approach in their roles.”

Marks out of ten

So how did he do it? First, he replies, the government set ten overall goals – “and many of those goals require agencies to work together.” These ‘Better Public Services Results’ include aims such as reducing the number of people on benefits and cutting reoffending rates. And they have to be easily “sellable” too, Rennie adds: departments and agencies bought into the initiative because “people got why they are important – people get why it’s important to reduce reoffending.”

Another key element, Rennie says, is publicly measuring progress towards the ten goals. “Twice a year we commission a report to the Cabinet about progress, and those reports are published. So the progress is very transparent and we’re able to talk quite frankly with ministers about which things are working well, where things are working less well, and what people are doing to get back on track.”

Cross-departmental collaboration to realise the ten goals is also supported by a career development and incentives system that encourages chief executives to reach out beyond their departmental boundaries. The civil service’s ‘leadership success profile’, a publicly-available set of attributes used for talent management and succession planning among the government’s 500 most senior officials, places increasing weight on these attributes: “We now have a more explicit reference than in the past to issues like collaboration and engagement, which is another lever we’re trying to use to embed the ideas about the importance of working across the system,” Rennie says, adding that the profile will “increasingly feature in areas around performance management.”

Collaboration is also listed among chief executives’ ‘core expectations’ – objectives they agree with Rennie at the start of each year. These state that “to be successful for any agency requires purposeful collaboration with one or more agencies of the state or agencies beyond the state, ie. non-governmental organisations or the private sector,” Rennie explains.

Public vs private

Though the government is a big advocate of transparency, Rennie says that end-of-year reports on whether chief executives have met their core expectations should be kept out of the public eye. “Chief executives, like any employees, have a right to those matters being worked through in confidence with their employer,” he says, “And I’m trying to create an environment where chief executives are open with me about what’s worked well, what hasn’t and what they need to do about it – I don’t think that’s assisted by putting their performance reviews out in the public domain.”

What does make it into the public domain, however, is information about how much each chief executive has earned over the year; and because their bonus payments are linked to performance against those core expectations, members of the public can see broadly how well they’ve performed.

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 Martti Hetemäki, head of the Finnish finance ministry, at this year’s Global Government Finance Summit

This limited level of exposure is appropriate when it comes to individuals, Rennie argues; but at the organisational level, he is happy to publish a whole lot more. After former UK cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell introduced ‘capability reviews’, publicly appraising UK departments’ ability to deliver against the government’s objectives, Rennie launched something similar in New Zealand: Performance Improvement Framework (PIF) reviews are carried out independently and published online. And whilst the UK’s coalition government ditched capability reviews in 2010 in favour of departmental ‘business plans’, Rennie’s PIFs have been running since 2009.

“When I became commissioner in 2008, there was quite a risk-averse culture around seeking feedback on performance of our organisations. So what I’m trying to do with the PIF is for chief executives to get constructive but frank feedback about the progress of their organisations,” he comments. How confident is he that the positive impacts on organisational performance outweigh the reputational damage to civil service bodies that are publicly criticised? “There is always that element of discomfort about someone holding the mirror up to yourself and then having that published,” he replies. “I wouldn’t say that all chief executives are totally relaxed about these reports, and neither do I think they should be. But we’re trying to be mature about realising that these are public institutions, here to deliver for the people of New Zealand – who have to be assured that the stewards of those institutions are doing an honest job and seeking to improve those organisations.”

Besides, Rennie adds, people have largely got used to the system by now – chief executives as well as journalists: “It’s probably fair to say that when we started the PIF reports, there was a bit more press coverage compared to now. And I also think that public servants are now very comfortable with that approach. Our chief executives seek out some of our most challenging lead reviewers, who are all external to the public service.”

In the spotlight

While New Zealand’s press may have shown decreasing interest in the PIF reviews over recent years, journalists did focus their attention on a bigger story. Rennie faced repeated calls to resign last year over his handling of the resignation of Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority boss Roger Sutton.

After numerous sexual harassment allegations were made against Sutton, Rennie allowed him to announce his resignation in a press conference, which Sutton used to describe the claims as merely “hugs and jokes.” Asked what he learnt from the experience, Rennie tells Global Government Forum: “I think probably the biggest single learning that I would take out of that experience was that I deeply regret having had a press conference in the form it occurred, and I’ve apologised for the way it came across.”

Rennie rejected calls for his resignation, and received the backing of state services minister Paula Bennett. The important thing for any leader facing challenging situations, he says, is “to understand what you take from those circumstances and how you respond in the short term; but also to think a bit about what some of the underlying issues are that might have given rise to that situation and to fix those issues, so that neither yourself nor future leaders are in that situation again.”


Rennie: “We need good, appropriate and regular training”

In this case, Rennie suggests, the system-wide learning is to “identify earlier that there might be an issue about the conduct or behaviour of a senior leader.” His objective now is to “encourage a culture where those issues are pulled out as early as possible, so that those issues are dealt with in an effective way from the point of view of the people who have been impacted by that behaviour, and so that the leader whose behaviour has fallen short of those expectations is able to get that frank feedback.”

To encourage that culture and after consulting with departments, Rennie and his team in July published an piece of guidance on what constitutes sexual harassment. And, following “feedback from the agencies involved in this work”, Rennie is now working on another guidance document on “a wider piece of system-wide guidance on conduct that constitutes harassment generally, including behaviours such as bullying.” Maintaining professional conduct is already part of senior officials’ core expectations, and every government agency has its own guidance on the topics – but Rennie says this new document, expected by Christmas, aims to drive a consistent approach across government.

Alongside this kind of top-down work, Rennie believes, there’s a need for “good, appropriate and regular training, so that those expectations are well understood by people as they join the public service and refreshed as they move through their careers. And so a piece around how we train and retrain people to reconfirm those expectations is a core part of that work.” Failure here wouldn’t only affect civil service employees, he believes, but also the reputation of government: “For public sectors to stay trusted and have a high degree of legitimacy, we need to be clear about the kind of culture that we want to encourage to minimise those kinds of behaviour.”

Instilling a culture of mutual respect is a challenge faced by civil service leaders around the world – and that attribute is, of course, just as crucial to a successful rugby team. New Zealand’s is certainly a successful one; on Saturday, we’ll find out whether it’s the world’s best, or merely number two. Either way, it’s Iain Rennie’s job to mirror its success, making his country’s civil service a world-leader in teamwork, coordination and capabilities. But for the next few days, minds may be a little distracted in New Zealand’s great offices of state: once the rugby issue’s been settled for another four years, it will surely be easier to focus again on the matter – less dramatic, perhaps, but perhaps more weighty – of civil service performance and development.


CV Highlights

1985 Graduates with a degree in Economics from Victoria University of Wellington, and joins New Zealand’s Treasury

1990 Following a year as economic adviser in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, spends three years in a similar role in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC)

1997 Appointed deputy secretary to the Treasury

2004 Seconded to the DPMC as acting director for the Policy Advisory Group

2007 Becomes deputy state services commissioner

2008 Appointed state services commissioner for a five-year term, renewed in 2013


See also:

Top New Zealand official moves to head off further sexual harassment scandals

New Zealand’s top civil servant pledges to meet more people, send fewer emails

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.

One Comment

  1. RJ says:

    Fun fact. The NZRFU recently (within the past couple of years)moved into the building that was previously the SSC building.

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