In Praise of Public Servants

This was written before the election outcome is known. It looks at the part of the executive which is not elected: the public servants and advisors.

Steven Joyce, National’s campaign manager, must have thought he had Labour out cold when he claimed that its spending plans announced during the election were enormous and unsustainable. He proved to be very wrong, as economists – of a variety of political persuasions – have said. Indeed Joyce’s claims bounced back on him, for the public’s conclusion was that Labour had a credible fiscal program. (Labour subsequently lost the advantage by its dreadful presentation of its tax policies.)

What intrigued me was that this was a very different Joyce from the Minister of Finance I saw at a briefing on the Treasury’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update. He was in command of the material and easily dealt with journalists’ questions. Yet a fortnight later he was flailing around like – er, um – a politician. What had happened?

Part of the explanation is that the column’s opening paragraphs followed standard journalistic conventions and focused only on the politician. In actuality each is surrounded by a team. In the case of the Minister of Finance he (or she) is in constant dialogue with the public servants in the Treasury. However, the constitutional convention is that during an election campaign the officials withdraw and the politician becomes more dependent on a small personal office team.

If the minister is lucky or shrewd, some in this office are very good. (Take H2 – Heather Simpson – in Helen Clark’s office; Wayne Eagleson played a similar role in John Key’s.) But often many in the offices are politically ambitious time servers, as average as the politicians they serve and are not nearly as experienced or competent as officials in the ministries.

I assume one of them did the calculation of Labour’s spending plans for Joyce;  you don’t think he did it himself do you? He seized on it believing that it must be true since politicians tend to think the worst of their opponents. The projection was certainly not done by an expert team of officials.

A documented example is that when Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer announced he would halve unemployment, economists were astonished, thinking that the Treasury knew something they did not. They asked for the officials’ papers. There was none. Someone in the PM’s office, presumably bereft of any economic understanding, had made the claim up; the PM had innocently adopted it.

The relationship between politicians and their advisers is not well documented and poorly understood. Public servants expect to be anonymous and so their activities are mysterious (but that does not mean ‘improper’). Most of the formal accounts tell you little about what actually goes on. Yet it is critical to the way a government functions. One picks the little one knows from documents, gossip, occasional leaks and history.

Not all departments are functioning well. Typically newly established ones do not. But a long established one may not be too impressive either if its remit is poorly specified and it is staffed by generic managers and time-servers or by officials with political agendas greater than their competence.

Leadership is important. The majority of cabinet ministers are like the people who elect them – average to struggling. A cabinet is fortunate to have as many as five ministers of quality. Usually the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance are; the up-to-three others may hold a diversity of portfolios or be moved between them patching up failures of their less able colleagues. Famously, George Gair kept shifting to sort out troublesome spots in the Muldoon administration.

Good departments love a good minister because they cannot make overall strategic decisions by themselves. One senior official asked me to approach his minister and ask for more direction. (Fat lot of good asking me; I could not budge him.)

Another well-known example arises from .John Shewan’s report, ‘Government Inquiry into Foreign Trust Disclosure Rules’.  Without derogating from Shewan, its quality and timeliness suggests that officials in Inland Revenue were well acquainted with the problem but had been unable to move a string of ministerial nonentities to taking any action.

Many of the less-able ministers are run by strong departments but are found wanting when promoted above their Peter level. Others cruise along with their department doing much the same. When a crisis occurs the minister looks inept. The best recent example is housing policy, which is split between a number of what appear to be dysfunctional agencies. Recall ten years ago, the then Leader of the Opposition, John Key, said we had a housing crisis; what is the bet we will still have it in ten years’ time unless there is institutional change and better political leadership? Even then it will take some years for a new agency to settle in.

This is a relatively benign account of the public service. It is under threat. Among the challenges is the shift from professional competence to management has often been accompanied by increased politicisation. Ministers, especially weak ministers, love that until the crisis happens.

When I wrote this we were struggling with the broken fuel line from the Marsden oil refinery to Auckland. My (uninformed) view is that the operational response was impressive. But was it necessary? Earlier assessments had identified the vulnerability. Is this yet another example of something on the to-do list which weak leadership has ignored?

It is not a defence to say this is a private-sector foul-up; nothing to do with the government. In this case the privately-owned sole pipe line is a monopoly. The public sector has its responsibilities one of which is to regulate monopolies, a second is to provide backups against the unexpected; the army and navy were called in to help shift the fuel.

To deal with crises (better still to prevent them before they happen) we need a quality public service with quality political leadership. The failure of the minister over Labour’s spending projections tells us something about what happens that it is not available.