New Zealand enshrines civil service principles in law

By on 27/07/2020
Minister of state services Chris Hipkins said long-held principles and values of the public service – “political neutrality, free and frank advice, and merit-based appointments” – have been embedded into the new Act. (Photo courtesy New Zealand Tertiary Education Union via Flickr).

New Zealand has passed a new “citizen focused” public service legislation bill which aims to encourage collaborative working to help tackle the country’s most pressing challenges.

Minister of state services Chris Hipkins said the new Public Service Act, which replaces the State Sector Act 1988, will deliver the most significant change in the public sector for 30 years. “The naming of the Act itself also signals a shift in focus, placing a clear emphasis on service to New Zealand individuals and communities as the key focus and motivation for all public service agencies and activities,” he said.

The bill, passed by parliament last week, gives public service organisations more flexibility to organise themselves around government priorities. It also allows civil servants to move more easily between agencies; establishes the purpose, principles, and values of an apolitical public service, and codifies its role in government formation; shifts the focus from state services to public services (reflected in changing the name of the State Services Commission to the Public Service Commission); supports the Crown in its commitment to and its relationship with Māori; and strengthens leadership across the public service.

As well as putting citizens front and centre, the new legislation aims to break down silos across government departments. Hipkins said the act will “lock-in” the collaborative thinking and practices championed by the New Zealand government in recent years. “It is no longer possible for any one single agency to fix the really big and complex problems New Zealand faces today,” he said. “Policy and operational silos take you only so far.”

Hipkins said the previous State Sector Act 1988 had been rendered outdated by today’s social, economic and technological changes. “The new Act gives the public service the tools and organisational agility to work together to tackle the most challenging, inter-generational issues and deliver services in ways that work best for New Zealanders,” he said.

The thinking behind the Act

Earlier this year, speaking at Global Government Summit about the country’s civil service reform programme, Hannah Cameron – Deputy Commissioner of the State Services Commission – explained that during the 1980s and ‘90s, agencies were given a great amount of operational autonomy. But “with that devolution came a lack of alignment across the system, making it more difficult to collaborate,” she said: initiatives that depended on cross-departmental coordination were “working against the grain.”

What’s more, she said, agencies’ strong sense of individual identity led to a loss of a sense of shared purpose and a weakening of the “motivation that brought public servants to be there in the first place.” The purpose of the reform programme is to preserve what’s good about the public service and harness civil servants’ sense of mission, she told the audience.

The reforms have been welcomed by The Public Service Association (PSA), which said all New Zealanders will benefit from more coordinated services. Glenn Barclay, national secretary of the PSA, said: “This is the biggest reform to New Zealand’s system of public management for over 30 years, and we believe it aligns well with the spirit of service that motivates public servants.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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