The 'bloated' state sector is borderline anorexic

The government repeatedly damns the bloated public sector and its growth under the previous government. So what are the facts?

New Zealanders are drifting back to work this week, dozy and with feet-dragging. Many will return to work in the public sector, once regarded as the backbone of a decent, democratic state, now more often slagged off as a bungling bureaucracy.

Talking down the public sector has been one of the few blatantly ideological campaigns waged by this government (along with, it seems, school and ACC reforms). The right/left divide is at is most pronounced when it comes to the size and responsibilities of the state, and the stone in this particular government's shoe when it comes to the big government/small government debate seems to be the number of people it employs.

Led by Bill English and Tony Ryall, government ministers spent much of last year talking about a bloated public sector, about how under Labour growth in the government sector was out of control. Indeed, English has been at it again already this year, arguing that "the public sector has grown rapidly, but with poor productivity".

National's clear election promise to cap, not cut jobs in the state sector has gone by the wayside, and with little complaint in the media or public, it must be said.

By its own admission, the government capped the number of core public service jobs at 38,859, then cut 1402 jobs to leave the number it employed at 37,457.

The political liturgy was simple – National wants more front-line workers, not back-office time-servers. And so the cuts were made in Health, Conservation, Tertiary Education, Biosecurity and on and on...

The lack of controversey is based on this oft-repeated and -swallowed claim that the public sector is bloated, inefficient, and complacent, stemming from the irrefutable fact that the core public service grew significantly under the Labour government, with many staff added to administer the new government-run schemes it created.

But even accepting that the latter, does it means that the former is true? The evidence suggests that the received wisdom on this one is simply untrue.

We've debated this question on Pundit about six months ago when David Beatson wrote about the importance of slimming down the public sector, and better measuring its performance. I've long meant to look more into this, and finally I've got some numbers to report.

Some of the figures were noted in the comments last July, but I've been able to get more data since, including figures going back to 1970:



Public Service: 50,189

Total Labour Force: 1,090,700

Public Service as percentage of Labour Force: 4.6%



Public Service: 64,111

Total Labour Force: 1,299,800

Public Service as percentage of Labour Force: 4.9%



Public Service: 29,463

Total Labour Force: 1,900,000

Public Service as percentage of Labour Force: 1.55%



Public Service: 37,457

Total Labour Force: 2,307,000

Public Service as percentage of Labour Force: 1.6%


So much for bloated. I must say, I'm surprised that the public service is still such a small percentage of the total labour force. I suspected the government was spinning this one, but not as much as this. Contrary to its extravagant claims, the public sector remains the smallest its been for at least two generations, and assuming many more were employed the government coming out of the Great Depression and in the immediate post-World War II years, probably the smallest its been in more than half a century.

A strong public service remains the foundation stone of a decent society, one that works for the common good and enacts the policies promoted by a democratically elected government. Any chance we can value its work, rather than constantly maligning it?