Iain Rennie, State Services Commissioner, New Zealand: Exclusive Interview

By on 18/12/2014
Iain Rennie, former State Services Commissioner, New Zealand

Iain Rennie talks exclusively to Global Government Forum about innovation, collaboration and thinking outside the box.

With the increased pace of global and environmental change, it has seldom been so challenging to lead public services. One country, New Zealand, has successfully adapted its public sector through acceptance of trial, error and innovation. Clearly there are lessons to be learned by many countries currently unwilling to accept the level of trial and, importantly, error that New Zealand has experienced.

However, for Iain Rennie, State Services Commissioner, New Zealand does start with some advantages:

‘We are a relatively small country and it does make it easier to make change than in very large economies. We also have a central government as, overwhelmingly, the principal delivery form of government in society.

‘So other countries have issues like negotiating change between central government and state or provincial governments. We have the luxury of not having those issues on the broader scale.

‘I also think we have always had a culture of enquiry and willingness to do things differently. Some of the reforms that I was part of in the mid 1980s and early 1990s were quite literally ground-breaking reforms in the global sense. I think some of that experience gives us the confidence to think outside the box. I think it is quite strong in our collective DNA.’

The Three Central Agencies

Those reforms he refers to came during his earlier career through the three central agencies in New Zealand – the Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the State Services Commission. He joined the Treasury after leaving Wellington University with a post-graduate qualification in Economics. The bulk of his career has been in the Treasury, but to him one of the highlights was the reform programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He worked with teams on a number of major reforms in macroeconomics, like the Central Bank independence, and establishment of more transparent fiscal policy. He also worked on the fiscal policy framework which became the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Other countries have gone down the same route that New Zealand went down early, but the country has been, and still is, often viewed as a trailblazer in how governments and their agencies can be run.

Innovation Nation

Mr Rennie explains why he thinks that is:

‘I think there are several components. One is we have some very highly trained, very able civil servants throughout our system and so technically we have people who can turn their minds to these issues. I think there is an openness in the leadership of the senior public service to embrace innovation.

‘I also think that in general ministers have been supportive about change and innovation. Particularly when they understand what the outcome is that the civil service is trying to deliver. More often than not ministers have that clarity about outcome and we can understand both the potential benefits and potential cost and results. I think the public environment has been generally reasonably favourable to trying some different things.’

More Impactful Service

While New Zealand is still recovering from the unusual and severe earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, one of the main government challenges is to rebuild what in Mr Rennie’s words is ‘the second largest metropolitan area in Christchurch’. That is a specific programme, for which there is a dedicated government department, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA). There is also a more general domestic challenge:

‘Broadly, in government we are facing the challenge of how we deliver a better quality service and a more impactful level of service to New Zealand in an environment of ongoing fiscal constraint.’

Changing Collaboration

There is certainly no sense of complacency in New Zealand. While acknowledging the forward-thinking already in place, Mr Rennie sees there is more to do:

‘Because of some of the really hard issues that we are trying to grapple with, and the need to meet a rise in community expectations, we ourselves feel we have to do better about being both more innovative and exercising more speed in bringing appropriate innovation to policy or to service delivery, whatever is relevant.’

For New Zealand’s public sector, the solution seems to be not just a willingness to try new things, but to also embark on a high level of collaboration within departments and organisations. Mr Rennie acknowledges that advice from one country does not necessarily transfer easily to another but, given that caveat, he explains his country’s thinking:

‘I think managing change is quite context-specific, and you have to have a strong understanding about the history and environment before you provide solutions. Having said that, I think some of the things that we are doing at the moment probably are relatively applicable to many jurisdictions.

‘We are very consciously trying to see much more of an outcomes orientation for the things that really matter for a civil service to deliver. That manifests itself in some very clearly owned priorities both by the government and by the civil service and a set of governance arrangements that give effect to that.

‘In particular, this is the way in which we are trying to harness bureaucratic effort across agencies because one thing that we are learning is that there are very few big issues that can be solved within the confines of a single organisation. Most of the modern issues in societies are by their nature pervasive; they are complex and they require consistent, purposeful collaboration to address those issues.

‘That is why we are putting a lot of effort around building a collective understanding of our leaders, making sure we bring leaders of different levels together in a much more purposeful way, to build relationships and to build an understanding of the environment that we are working within. We see collaboration as incredibly important.

‘It is also why we are putting quite a lot into leadership development, particularly giving our senior leaders different career paths that build a broader scale of experiences.

‘I think that if we have that sort of collective culture building, we would see that as very important in the low-corruption culture that we have had for a very long time. I think we would see those issues as much more important than the issues around civil service pay.’

To back up that claim, New Zealand took second spot behind Denmark in the Corruption Perception Index 2014, and is invariably near the very top in the annual index.

 The Global Context

While these programmes are being considered, there is of course the wider international context. When we interviewed the outgoing Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia,  Dr Ian Watt highlighted two major global concerns: the economy and security. Mr Rennie also chooses these as the two major threats to New Zealand’s stability.

The economic crises in the world which are still playing out are very much at the forefront of planning and consideration in New Zealand.

The other aspect, as Mr Rennie explains, is the concern over global terrorism. ‘I think we are all much more aware of the broad security environment that countries are working on. While New Zealand is still in many ways a relatively low risk environment, we are not immune from some of the challenges around potential terrorism that you see in other countries at the moment.’

Shifting Channels

While these challenges are recognised, what can be unsettling is the sheer speed at which crises and changes develop. As Mr Rennie put it: ‘One of our key challenges is the pace and impact of global trends through to our country. Some of these are in the security domain but equally we have seen significant shifts in migration flows.

‘We have seen very big shifts in the nature of our trade towards China. We’ve seen the real impact of global financial shocks and how they come to our shores very quickly. Even in areas like public health with issues like Ebola for example.

‘For me there’s a sense that the channels through which the world impacts on our society are proliferating. They are becoming more complex and the speed at which some of the global influences feed through to New Zealand society is much more rapid. I think that is one of the biggest challenges for us as a small society.’

 The Living Standards Framework

Clearly, one development that would ease global tensions would be rising living standards around the world. To Mr Rennie, a return to a stronger global economy has more than the obvious advantages. ‘Lifting living standards right across the globe is important in terms of addressing concerns about economic or social inequality. It helps dissipate some of the social political tensions that we see, and growth has remained quite uneven and spotty since the global financial crisis. I think it is very, very important that, globally, there is a very strong alignment and consistency about stronger economic growth.’

Given New Zealand’s reputation for original thinking in the public sphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that the government and civil service have taken a holistic view to the economy and how it brings improvement. In 2011 the Treasury launched the Living Standards Framework. This takes the view that a nation’s wellbeing can not just be gauged by wealth or GDP figures. A few other countries are working along similar lines, but the Living Standards Framework was launched by the Treasury itself and takes into account a number of parameters when gauging the impact or success of a financial decision.

It takes into account everything from freedoms, right and capabilities, to the distribution of living standards and subjective measures of wellbeing in its policies. As Mr Rennie says: ‘There is a wide set of metrics that you want to look at, such as the sustainability of resource use in the environment, a sense about attitudes and feelings of social inclusion through the community. I think New Zealand is like a number of other jurisdictions. I think we are not forgetting that economic growth remains hugely important, but there are other dimensions to wellbeing that policy advisors need to understand and incorporate in their advice to ministers.’

Civil Servants In Public

Given Mr Rennie’s appearances in front of the cameras lately, it seemed only right to look at this aspect of the role of civil servants in New Zealand.

‘We have made it clearer’ says Mr Rennie, ‘about where some decisions actually do reside within the civil service. There is a case in point at the moment with an issue about handling an employment matter. That clearly is handling of civil servants as opposed to ministers. In that context, particularly when you have an important matter around the pretty high-profile civil servant, there is a legitimate public interest in understanding what has happened, and in the scrutiny of the handling of those matters.

‘You know, that can be quite uncomfortable but I think appropriate. I think the challenge for a civil servant is your capacity to continue having multiple roles. We do have roles as advisers to ministers and that does, quite legitimately, require quite a conservative approach to public servants being in the media. This is because it is our job to work behind the scenes, working in confidence with ministers, and I think that is appropriate.

‘I think the tension comes in our system with matters that are in our hands in terms of decision-making, and how you balance an appropriate transparency and accountability around that, while at the same time respecting something that needs more confidentiality in handling those matters. One must also recognise that civil servants should actually be relatively conservative about how they front these issues in public.’

Trailblazer

Every country has to grapple with employment matters, as well as a whole raft of major considerations that are regional, national and international. And every country has to adjust to these considerations changing and developing with increasing speed. While Mr Rennie freely acknowledges that what is working in New Zealand is not a simple template for every country, it is clear that New Zealand continues to be a trailblazer in public service delivery.

 

 

About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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