National's decision to hire "purchase advisers" is another nail in the coffin of a neutral public service. Or is it?

Once upon a time, a long time ago, the relationship between elected Ministers and the public service was relatively simple – in theory at least. Each Minister was "responsible" for those public servants within his or her portfolio, having to account to Parliament – and ultimately to the electorate – for their actions or inactions. In turn, those public servants were required to act in a neutral and non-partisan fashion to provide advice and advance the policy choices of their Minister.

Of course, as Yes Minister so brilliantly captured, theory and practice did not always make for comfortable bedfellows. Here in New Zealand, matters began to change in 1988, with the passage of the State Sector Act and the creation of chief executives within departments to manage their day-to-day operations, along with the State Services Commission to oversee these chief executives' performance. Then came Cave Creek and the effective demise of individual ministerial responsibility for public servants' actions (in the classic sense of falling-on-one's-sword for mistakes that take place in a minister's portfolio). Finally, the granting of formal status to political advisers within ministerial offices created a new breed of publicly paid, but nakedly partisan, actors in the policy creation and delivery process.

In the wake of this evolutionary process, we have a much more convoluted picture. Ministers nominally remain "responsible" for their portfolios, but their ability to intervene in the actual operations of the public service is circumscribed heavily by the State Sector Act and the State Services Commission, while their preparedness to front for public sector failures has markedly lessened. Public servants are still obliged to serve their minister as advisers on policy matters, but now must compete with political advisers for the minister's ear. The public service is meant to be neutral and non-partisan in its operations, but faces increased criticism that these principles have bent and twisted under political pressure.

Now, according to the Labour Party and the news media, the National Government has found yet another way to complicate matters. At the "instigation" of Finance Minister Bill English, the chief executives of several government departments have hired "purchase advisers" on set-price contracts, apparently with the sole job of advising the relevant Minister on how to cut spending within that department. If we are to believe Labour's claims, as well as those of the PSA that these appointments breach the State Sector Act, these advisers are partisan political appointees masquerading as public servants. So much, then, for National's promise to "restore the absolute commitment to the political neutrality of the public service"!

Bill English, of course, sees things differently, indicating that the positions are necessary to school new Ministers in the various ways the bureaucracy will use to protect their overall budgets. Over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar also claims that such advisers "are not new - I recall some in the 1990s". And certainly Treasury's guidance on public sector management indicates there is nothing wrong with the concept of "purchase managers" per se:

"Ministers may decide to use purchase advisers, who may be staff or external consultants, to obtain advice independent of the department supplying the outputs. ... Purchase advisers can advise on value for money in output purchase and assist Vote Ministers to purchase outputs that are consistent with government strategy. Ministers may delegate to their purchase advisers negotiation of some of the detail of the purchase agreement."

All of which seems to leave matters in the state The Verlaines so aptly summarised as "blame on your side, blame on mine, and too many things to talk of at any one time."

Or to put it another way, there's probably some precedent for National's actions; and given its stated desire to cut public spending, probably justification for bringing in some new dogs to sniff out old bureaucratic tricks. But pressuring chief executives to directly hire consultants to review the departments overall budget with an eye to reducing spending looks a lot more like a political intervention than a simple "ensuring full value for money" exercise. And if such political advice really is needed, wouldn't it be better to fund it direct from each minister's office, so that it shows up as what it really is?

But there's an even worse aspect to National's actions. I'm one of those responsible for teaching Public Law to befuddled 19 and 20 year olds, many of whom wouldn't know their Cabinet from their executive council. Next week's tutorial partially deals with the relationship of ministers to the public service. So now I'm going to have to try to explain this mess to them. Thanks, Bill.

Comments (8)

by Graeme Edgeler on May 04, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

If we are to believe Labour's claims, as well as those of the PSA, that these appointments breach the State Sector Act

For this to be a breach of section 33 of the State Sector Act, would require that these purchase advisers employees. I anticipate that this is not the case.

by Andrew Geddis on May 04, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Graeme,

I suspect you are correct - they'll be "contractors" and not "employees". Employment law isn't my field, however, so I didn't feel able to pronounce on this in my post.

by Kirsten Windelov on May 04, 2009
Kirsten Windelov

Isn't the point that the Government shouldn't be directing who departments employ or contract? Or would it be OK for Bill English to, for example, direct a CE to award a lucrative or influential contract with a particular provider? The constitutional point here is about poticial nuetrality and ultimately checks and balances against nepotism and corruption. Didn't the CE of Environment lose his job last year for taking notice of a Minister's preference (not a direction)about an appointment?

by Tim Watkin on May 04, 2009
Tim Watkin

It's an interesting point Kirsten. Who are the purchase advisers working for and answerable to? If they are English's creatures, then he can appoint and direct them (and pay for them). But then it suggests he's interfering in management. And if they are paid by the State Services Commission and work for the SOEs, then, er, it suggests he's interfering...

by Graeme Edgeler on May 04, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

Isn't the point that the Government shouldn't be directing who departments employ or contract? Or would it be OK for Bill English to, for example, direct a CE to award a lucrative or influential contract with a particular provider?

That might run into issues with the Public Finance Act or the appropriate appropriation act. I very much doubt this one does. The issue here is almost certainly political, not legal.

That said, I just re-looked at some of the blog furore over the appointment of Clare Curran, and it's pretty damn similar:

2. David Parker personally suggested or requested that a Labour Party activist and communications strategist be hired by the Ministry

3. The Ministry hired her, breaking its own rules to do so, without any competitive tender.

4. Several of the Ministry staff saw her appointment as inappropriate and as political interference, and Leigh resigned about it.

ref: http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2007/11/the_attack_on_erin_leigh.html

by Dean Knight on May 05, 2009
Dean Knight

*sigh* - hear hear.  My lectures and tutorials on the neutral public service etc aren't for another fortnight, but - like you- I'm not looking forward to making sense of the mess...

by sherrymathew on March 15, 2010
sherrymathew

We can only be thankful that the NZDF Kiwibase in Bamiyan or the pmp dumps security patrols by the resident provincial reconstruction team have not been seriously threatened by the Taliban or al Qaeda - so far.

If they were, and our troops captured assailants jeopardizing their mission, they would not be in any better position to handle prisoners than the NZSAS was in 2002.

As members of the International Security Assistance Force, NZDF troops are required to transfer their prisoners to Afghan custody. Unlike other ISAF members, New Zealand still has no bilateral agreement in place with the Karzai government that enables our troops or officials to check if any transferred prisoners are subsequently treated in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights laws.

The new government needs to ensure that agreement is in place, and that the NZDF is properly resourced to meet the challenges that will arise as the new Obama strategy sharpens java certification dumps the conflict between a significantly enlarged US force and the revitalised Taliban and al Qaeda in the run-up to Afghanistan’s election in August.

Last week, Defence Minister Mapp gave a carefully qualified response to my questions about New Zealand’s possible involvement in the ISAF operational mentoring and liaison training programme, in which military trainers are embedded in combat units of the Afghan army.

He reveals that New Zealand has received several requests from different sources to contribute troops to the OMLT programme, but declines to provide copies of the requests.000-100 Mapp goes on to state:

“You will have noted, however, that the New Zealand government recently renewed the mandate for all current contributions to international stabilization efforts in Afghanistan until 2010, centering on the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province. This will remain the primary focus of our defence efforts in Afghanistan for the time being.”

We still need to ensure that NZDF is adequately equipped for its existing tasks in what will be a rapidly changing war environment 000-111 within a matter of weeks.

by on March 07, 2012
Anonymous

It’s easy to buy special shoes. Sometimes these Nike Air Force One aren’t overly expensive, simply expect to buy them the minute they’re on the market given that they sell fast.

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