The Unprepared

That our bureaucrats failed to be prepared for a new government, is an indication of deeper problems.

For those interested in the totality of New Zealand politics the most extraordinary story of the year may be the finding that our public service was, broadly, unprepared for the change of government.

To scroll back to the days when we were a functioning democracy, the convention was that the public service would serve their political masters (and mistresses) whoever they were. Therefore they did not take a view on who would win the next election. Instead, they prepared a ‘Post Election Briefing’ for the incoming minister, who might be the same minister, or one from the same party or one from a different party.

While the overt purpose of the PEB was to brief the minister, it was also used to review the state of the department, the pressures and problems it faced, and the directions it was going. Today’s PEBs are thinner and often say that if the Minister wishes, the department will prepare a paper on a matter, implying they have yet to think about it.

The contrast is shown by the Department of Internal Affairs for the 1999 and the 2017 elections. In 1999 the DIA was already working on the question of the location of National Archives (as it was then called) in the public sector. Its work helped prepare the way for the separation out of Archives NZ which was the policy of the incoming Labour Government (but it could have been the policy of a new National minister). This time the DIA was unprepared for the new government’s policy, whereas a surreptitious look at Labour’s policy manifesto should have got them thinking.

I was struck by the general policy lacuna when presenting a paper to the Wellington Statistics Group on Poverty and the Statistician. It is a technical paper – you are welcome to read it here – but the social statistician works in a wider context. 

Extraordinarily, the new Child Poverty Reduction Act does not define poverty. Rather, it leaves the matter to the Government Statistician. As a long-time social statistician who has studied poverty, I know my profession has not got the specialist competence to define poverty. Our skills are in its measurement, but we have to take the lead from others about what we are measuring. Defining poverty requires, ultimately, political leadership far above the Government Statistician’s technical skills.

You might have expected other government agencies such as the Ministry of Social Development or the Treasury (especially with its increasing concerns about wellbeing) to have been consulted; apparently not. What exactly went on requires tedious investigation, but one is left with the impression that the public service was not prepared for the new government’s policy, despite it being well flagged in the proposed bill already before Parliament.

Another instructive example is housing policy. The new government’s view was that New Zealand’s housing crisis (identified by John Key in 2007) required state-sponsored building of more houses. It is not an easy strategy to get under way, especially as the preceding government‘s approach was much more laissez faire. (In contrast, the First Labour Government’s housing program was grounded in work carried out by the preceding Minister of Finance, Gordon Coates.) Instructively, the Minister of Housing, Phil Twyford, has had to create a new government agency to implement his ambition.

Public understanding of the program has not been helped by the commentariat. Undoubtedly some of the uninformed critics are ideologically opposed to state intervention (and are as enamoured with Judith Collins, National’s spokesperson on housing, as some Labour supporters are with Jacinda Ardern) but most, I think, have been as unprepared for the change in policy direction as the public service, and default to the position they learned under National. They are not National aligned, but creatures of limited habit, repeating what they learned under Key.

The Minister of Health, David Clark, has faced a different problem. Whatever his analysis or ambitions, he has been overwhelmed by problems left from his National predecessor. (It is called ‘alligator country’; dealing with them means forgetting that the point is to drain the swamp.)

One can multiply the examples. Nor should we forget that before the election the Opposition was not very prepared to become the government either. But this column’s focus is on the deterioration of the public service over the years.

There is a view that our bureaucracy is fine, and needs but a little tinkering. The finding of its unpreparedness for a change of government ought to break it out of its complacency, but probably wont.

The problem seems to be that increasingly the top echelons of departments are being filled by generic managers who have little knowledge of, or interest in, the particularities of the departments they manage. Their ambition is to move on to a more senior (i.e. better paid) jobs in another department which will have different particularities.

Apparently, the specialist expertise and a knowledge of the department are a threat to their management style so those with these attributes need to be kept far away from the senior leadership team, especially as they could show up the generic managers’ ignorance.

We see the result in the pathetic PEBs of many, but not all, departments and their unpreparedness for new initiatives and challenges. The increasing dominance by generic managers and an increasing disincentive to able junior staff to acquire expertise and loyalty in a environment hostile to them has been going on for some time. No wonder so much policy being generated with departments is shallow and inept.

So what appears to be deep problems are not addressed because those on the bridge dare not rock the boat as they might fall off.

How to address the problem? Clearly there needs to be a discounting of the significance of generic managers in appointment assessments and a higher priority for those who are fit-for-purpose with the particular skills the department needs. (A retrospective test would be that the new appointee does not immediately redisorganise the department, a hallmark of a vigorous generic manager; it is also a vote of no confidence in the previous management. At least they should wait until they have some understanding of what the department is actually on about.)

However, today’s appointments are made by generic managers who will not lightly discard their culture. Since it has taken decades to get to this bureaucratic stasis, even a determined top leadership it is likely to take a long time to get them out. In the interim we should press for higher performance from generic managers, demanding that they have a better grasp of what is going on within their agencies outside the narrow confines of management and that they promote expertise and competence. Nor should they forget they are meant to be serving the public by their responding to ministers and their accountability to parliament..