New Zealand consults on major civil service reforms

By on 13/09/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
New Zealand Parliament Buildings (Image courtesy: Paul Carmona/Flickr).

The New Zealand government has unveiled proposals for reform of the civil service in an attempt to break down siloes between its departments.

In a speech in parliament last week Chris Hipkins, minister for state services, launched a consultation on proposals to overhaul the 1988 State Services Act: the legislation which created the current machinery of government.

Hipkins said that despite the success of the Act, it doesn’t work well in addressing cross-agency issues. The system “is currently based on a model of a single department delivering, with strong lines of vertical accountability from one chief executive to a single minister,” he said. “That doesn’t work where we need agencies working collectively, across organisational boundaries, to achieve results for New Zealanders.”

Building connections

Options outlined in the government consultation include the creation of new Public Sector Executive Boards: teams of chief executives, tasked with creating plans and pooling funding to meet challenges for which they are jointly accountable. In addition, the document proposes a system of “public service joint ventures” to link up resources and staff between multiple departments.

New executive agencies could provide a single point of delivery for citizens to access a range of services provided on behalf of other public sector departments, the document says.

Other changes proposed include measures to ensure that chief executives of public service departments have more responsibility for achieving cross-departmental government policy aims.

“Given the important role chief executives play in the public service, this proposal could have significant impacts on how the system functions e.g. by requiring chief executives to make more frequent or significant trade-offs between the needs of a department and the system as a whole,” says the consultation.

A single service

A new Senior Leaders Service would aim to support changes in culture to encourage flexibility and adaptability among top civil servants. And the proposals include a suggestion that a separate chief executive role should be created for the Public Service Commission, to “provide an additional avenue of support and flexibility to enable the commissioner or commissioners to focus on the outward facing purpose, principles and values of the public service as a whole”.

Common terms and conditions could also be created for back office, corporate and policy jobs, making it easier for employees to move between departments.

The reformed Act would contain specific references to the public service’s support of an improved Crown/Māori relationship, and take into account the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles.

Mixed feelings

Responding to the consultation, Simon Chapple, director of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies’ School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, said: “The core problem in our policy process is not that ‘silos’ keep us from joining the necessary dots.

“It’s a nexus of fundamental constitutional matters in regard to defining the balance of power between the executive and the public service, particularly the top of the public service.

“New Zealand is a country without a written constitution. We have a unicameral parliament with limited checks and balances on executive power. Within our system, there has always been a tension between a public service and a government service. The former is an important constitutional check on executive power, the latter not so much.”

Jo Cribb, president of the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand, welcomed the proposals but said the six-week consultation period should be extended.

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.

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