Trust and teamwork: Hannah Cameron on how New Zealand dodged the COVID bullet

By on 16/03/2022 | Updated on 17/03/2022
New Zealand's Public Service Commission’s deputy commissioner Hannah Cameron

As New Zealand winds down its successful ‘zero COVID’ policy, the Public Service Commission’s deputy commissioner Hannah Cameron tells Matt Ross that focusing on public trust, wellbeing and cross-government collaboration helped the country weather the pandemic

Omicron may now be on the rise in New Zealand, but for two years the country kept COVID-19 at bay – fending it off until the population was largely vaccinated. That meant asking people to make sacrifices: international travel was effectively barred, while tight regional lockdowns were imposed every time the virus emerged in the community. And New Zealanders were being asked to accept these restrictions without having experienced the full horrors of a COVID wave: to make its policies stick, the government was heavily dependent on the trust of the public.

New Zealand’s leaders well understand the crucial importance of this most intangible of assets. Speaking at the Global Government Summit earlier this year, Hannah Cameron – deputy commissioner at the Public Service Commission – told the assembled civil service leaders that in New Zealand, “we talk a lot about how we can, as a public service, reinforce trust; and how important that is to enable us to continue to have high levels of compliance with public health measures”. Their focus on building confidence in the public service, she added, has paid off: it was already strong prior to the pandemic, “and broadly speaking, we’re seeing that maintained throughout this time”.

In many other countries, a rise in public trust that arrived with the pandemic has since gone into reverse. In the UK, for example, 2021 research found that trust in political leadership had fallen below pre-pandemic levels by October 2020. And that was before news emerged of a series of lockdown-busting parties at 10 Downing Street; as the chancellor has acknowledged, these have further undermined the public’s faith in government.

Some of this decline is clearly due to breaches of COVID rules by the UK prime minister, aides and officials. But the 2021 research also points to wider causes, including the rising death toll: public trust is determined by a complex web of factors, ranging from individuals’ behaviour to deep-rooted systemic issues. Cameron has worked in the civil services of both New Zealand and the UK; and in a wide-ranging interview, we talk through some of her experiences – finding big differences between two parliamentary democracies whose constitutions have much in common.

A new life in New Zealand

She began her career on the UK’s ‘Fast Stream’ graduate programme, working at the education and home departments. Then she left the country, “supposedly just for a short-term time-out and to go travelling: went to New Zealand, and never came back!” She’d expected to be picking fruit, she recalls, but “surprised myself by walking straight into a job for the Ministry of Education, and spent a somewhat baffling time trying to work out what was going on and why it was so different from my experience in the UK”.

Some of these variations, she explains, are purely cultural: despite the stereotypes about polite, buttoned-up Brits, she found that UK civil servants were “much more ready to just say what they thought and be stronger in their opinions” than their Kiwi counterparts. But there are also important differences in how the two governments operate.

UK ministers are based at the heart of their departments and decide the ‘line’ on most topics, for example, while New Zealand’s work together in a building by Parliament and have a narrower remit – leaving decisions over organisational management and service delivery in the hands of officials. In New Zealand, “people talk about the department’s opinion as being separate from the minister’s,” she explains. “We have this conventional separation between the operational matters – which are seen as matters for the agency – and the minister’s decisions about policy.”

After her five years as a civil servant in the UK, where people referred to the secretary of state as “the boss”, this degree of civil service autonomy initially seemed odd to Cameron. “It felt like the public service, in that separation, had lost sight of who was being elected to do the job,” she says. “And I’ve struggled with that, because one thing that’s always been a constant for me through my public service career is that I really believe in democracy.” The system does have advantages, though, including “continuity over time”.

Identifying another difference, Cameron adds that there’s been no “encroachment” of political influence into public service appointment decisions in New Zealand. The country also has far few ministers, organising them in a less hierarchical way and creating more roles that span departments – so there’s “a lot of cross-pollination across ministerial portfolios”. And New Zealand is far more transparent than the UK over how decisions are made, publishing both civil servants’ advice to ministers and the minutes from Cabinet meetings. (Earlier this month, former UK education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater referenced the country’s model while calling for Britain to follow its lead in publishing policy advice).

Read more: Former UK cabinet secretary backs call to publish civil service policy advice

Health and wealth

In policy terms, prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s administration has focused on promoting wellbeing – and this fed through into the government’s reaction to COVID. “We had a very, very strong public health-focused response right from the beginning,” recalls Cameron. In other countries, it’s been common to argue that lockdowns protect health at the economy’s expense; but “it’s not a dichotomy; it’s not an either-or,” she says: if leaders had opted instead to minimise movement controls in order to protect growth, they’d have found that “the economy was still affected by the health outcomes”.

So New Zealand went into “a very severe kind of lockdown in the early stages, which really made a huge difference” – enabling the government to get the community infection rate down to zero. Using tight social distancing rules, border controls and quarantine requirements, the country opted to protect health in order to protect the economy. And today it is reaping the rewards: after briefly dipping below zero, growth neared 5% last year, while net public debt as a percentage of GDP has shown only a small rise since 2019 to 15%.

Public servants’ work to achieve the government’s ‘zero COVID’ goal, Cameron explains, was aided by recent reforms designed to foster collaboration between government agencies. Since the 1980s, agency chief executives had been tasked with delivering against a fairly narrow set of policy goals; but “that is not sufficient if you’re going to solve really complex issues, so you need to have mechanisms – which we’ve introduced with the reforms – to join them up and make them more accountable for being part of something bigger,” she comments.

A collaborative Act

Under the Public Service Act 2020 – outlined by Cameron in a session on the way forward for civil service reform at the 2020 Global Government Summit – a public service leadership team was formed, bringing together the 36 central agencies’ chief executives. Their performance expectations, she explains, now include the tasks “they’ve got to do in their agency, but also a whole lot of stuff around how they need to work in the system, the behaviours that are expected of them, and how they deliver to some of those system goals”.

Additionally, they have a “stewardship” responsibility to consider over-arching policy objectives: the Act requires them to produce regular cross-departmental briefings on key topics, ensuring that the government keeps working towards long-term goals amidst the press of urgent priorities. “There were instances where the minister would say: ‘I’ll take that resourcing because I need it for my priorities’,” Cameron recalls. “Now, by giving a kind of legislative mandate, [chief executives] have to say: ‘Well, I have to produce this briefing’.”

Read more: Grown-up government: an interview with Iain Rennie, New Zealand’s former state services commissioner

To pursue cross-government public service reform agendas such as those around digital, property and procurement, she explains, individual chief executives are “given by the commissioner responsibility for a cross-cutting issue” – taking on the task of leading development work. And where cross-government issues are more around realising policy goals or collaborating on service delivery, the Act permits the creation of boards bringing together relevant chief executives. This has been really useful during the pandemic, comments Cameron, citing the board bringing together the agencies involved in sealing the borders: an early “lack of clarity about who was doing what” has been addressed: “Everything goes to the board, and they find a solution”.

Budgeting for wellbeing

These boards will prove as valuable in pursuing New Zealand’s ‘wellbeing budgets’, under which agencies collaborate on joint bids for funding to realise a set of headline policy goals. On a topic such as preventing family and sexual violence, Cameron explains, previously the Treasury would have received a host of funding bids – all run by different agencies, and covering different aspects of the issue. But now “the minister of finance expects to see a package that’s been put together by a cluster of ministers”: a coherent, integrated set of interventions and services, delivered by agencies working in close partnership. “And the minister of finance won’t be paying any attention to any odd initiatives that come up the sides as they go through that process,” she adds.

Where a collective of agencies wins funding, a board can hold the funding and jointly make spending decisions, explains Cameron. And the requirement to show how a joint proposal will generate the greatest impact is helping to push agencies towards preventive work: “There has been a real shift and a cross-government strategy to put more resources into prevention, rather than just an ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach,” she says.

How are these innovations likely to develop over the coming years? On the civil service reform side, Cameron wants to further reduce the need for agencies to “develop their own capability in different areas, 36 times!” The chief executives leading on some agendas could, she suggests, win greater leverage: while “we don’t want to go to a very highly centralised, one-size-fits-all approach, my view is that some of these things could further mature and do more across agencies – particularly in terms of setting standards, but also in leading out on a certain type of capability”.

The public service also has work to do on diversity and inclusion, Cameron notes. New Zealand has reached gender equality in its top jobs – something that, she says, is the result of “a deliberate decision by the current commissioner [Peter Hughes] that he was going to make that happen”. But action is needed to support more civil servants from Maori and Pacific Islander communities into leadership roles. “That’s a challenge about bringing the talent through, and valuing some of the different capabilities that people bring,” she comments.

The end of zero COVID

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s zero COVID policy has finally run out of road: the highly-infectious omicron arrived just as policymakers, given the country’s 78% vaccination rate and the need to revive its crucial tourism industry, were planning a phased opening of the borders. So the policy of aggressive regional lockdowns has been relaxed: today’s focus, says Cameron, is on “how we respond to a different volume [of infections], that we really haven’t experienced up to now” – particularly in terms of keeping public services operating as the number of those isolating rises.

Those numbers are indeed shooting up. At the end of January, the country was still only seeing about 100 positive tests a day and had experienced just 16,000 infections over the previous two years; by mid-March, cumulative infections had reached 400,000 – with 20,000 testing positive every day. Our interview was held just before infection rates began to spiral; but even then, it was clear that rising community transmission would soon render the border closures pointless.

“New Zealanders are starting to get to the point where it’ll almost be a good thing – especially if with [high] vaccination rates, the serious health impact is much reduced – if we do have the virus circulating, because then we might get to the point where we feel comfortable in opening up the borders,” said Cameron. Indeed, on 16 March Ardern announced that she’s bringing forward plans to restore international travel, welcoming vaccinated tourists from visa-waiver countries from the beginning of May.

For a population that’s watched the pandemic from a safe distance, protected by an activist government pursuing a zero COVID policy, allowing in the virus will represent quite a shift. But as New Zealand’s government performs a gradual about turn in the face of changing circumstances, it will have one crucial asset on its side: public trust.

Hannah Cameron recently attended the Global Government Summit, which brought together top civil service leaders from around the world: we’ll shortly be publishing reports on its sessions, covering topics from risk management to sustainability.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. Moana Mackie-Rata says:

    Sadly, the article shows a strongly partisan view of events in New Zealand. In fact, currently, public confidence in the labour government has shown a dramatic decline in all latest polls, interest rates and the cost of living is continuing to rise across the board, as are overall poverty markers. Businesses – particularly small to medium businesses which have been the mainstay of the New Zealand economy, have failed or are failing – thanks to continued lockdowns, operating restrictions, lack of government understanding regarding the needs of business – immigration policy (largest-ever shortage of both skilled and seasonal workers). Covid restrictions account for some of this but a clear lack of government foresight and experience is responsible for much more. Multi-millions of dollars have been spent on ‘consultancy fees’ from which no tangible projects have arisen. Inflation is rampant. Most decisions are made in a reactionary manner in response to a fall in public opinion. A government that heralded itself as ‘open and transparent’ has proved to be exactly the opposite. Sadly, New Zealand is currently nowhere near the bottom of its financial decline.

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