Purchase advisers: new dogs or old tricks?

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.