New Zealand on the verge of major public service reform

By on 27/11/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Since the election of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in 2017, the New Zealand government has focused on promoting cross-departmental work – and the new reforms will push this further. (Image courtesy: New Zealand Ministry of Justice).

A new bill brought to New Zealand’s parliament is to pave the way for the “most significant change in the public service in 30 years”, enabling government to more effectively address major challenges and better serve citizens, according to the country’s state services minister, Chris Hipkins.

Replacing the State Sector Act 1988, the new Public Service Act is designed to strengthen cross-departmental working, focus officials on key public policy goals, and allow public servants to move between agencies more easily.  

Under the new act, interdepartmental boards or “joint ventures” will be established to address high-priority issues, bringing together chief executives from relevant government agencies. The boards will have the power and budgets to collaboratively deal with challenges such as reducing child poverty, improving mental health services and addressing climate change. The boards will have the authority to employ staff and enter into contracts, and will report to a single minister.    

Structures built for today’s challenges

Hipkins said that New Zealand’s public service is not broken – it was ranked second of 38 countries assessed on civil service performance in the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index – but that the current act has “reached the limit of what it can achieve”.

“The State Sector Act 1988 was designed for its time, and since then there have been major social, economic and technological changes, many of them on a global scale,” he said. “While the current act has provided some benefits to efficiency and effectiveness at the agency level, it can no longer support the way modern public services need to be delivered.”

Hipkins added that the new bill will build on the successes of the past, whilst futureproofing the public service and ensuring that it meets citizens’ growing expectations.

“Long-held principles and values of the public service – political neutrality, free and frank advice, and merit-based appointments – will be embedded into the new act. These changes will ensure the public service operates with integrity and continues to earn the trust, confidence and respect of New Zealanders,” he said.  

A collaborative approach  

Further fostering collaboration between agencies, the new bill calls for the creation of an official public service leadership team providing strategic leadership across the whole of the public service. Under the plans, public service leaders will work together to develop a strategy for senior leadership and management capability, and a number of appointments will be made – including ‘functional chief executives’ responsible for specific functions within a department, according to The Mandarin.  

The act will allow public servants to “have the same civil and political rights as all New Zealanders to engage in democratic protest, be active in political parties and engage in civil and political debate, except of course if their work as public servants is connected with the subject of the protest,” Hipkins said earlier this year.

And it also includes explicit recognition of the role of the public service in supporting the Crown in its relationship with Māori people under the Treaty of Waitangi (te Tiriti o Waitangi). It confirms that public service leaders are “responsible for developing and maintaining the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives”, as reported by The Mandarin.

Fleet of foot

Hipkins revealed in September 2018 that there would be a substantive review of the 1988 State Sector Act. After a period of public consultation, he announced in June this year that new legislation would be introduced; this, he said, would aim to make the public service “more fleet-footed” and to enable it to “shift its focus to where it will make the most difference”.

At the 2019 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore in February, Gabriel Makhlouf, New Zealand’s then Treasury secretary, told fellow delegates about the planned reforms and why they were needed. He explained that in the 1980s, powers were devolved across government – giving each departmental leader autonomy over budgets, management and organisational goals. “This was brilliant at creating clarity around the delivery of outputs. It was brilliant at making very clear who is accountable for delivery,” he said. “But over time, it’s become more and more obvious that it’s less great at dealing with complex, cross-cutting issues. And it’s less great at putting citizens at the centre of policy, which is increasingly recognised as the way to deliver effective public policy.”

Since the election of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in 2017, Makhlouf explained, the government has developed and expanded work to promote cross-departmental work. “We’re now doing a much bigger set of reforms, but they’re still evolutionary,” he said at the February 2019 event. “We want to hold on to the old system’s strengths around transparency, accountability, and the fiscal responsibility required by our framework. What we want to do is to become smarter and more flexible.”  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. P.A. says:

    so everybody can do everything. cross departmental initiatives are going to be even slower to approach. This will be walked back in 8 years.

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