There are some easy ways to improve the big public sector reform package currently before Parliament, writes Simon Chapple.
The big picture of State Services Minister Chris Hipkins’ public sector reform package, promoted by State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and currently before Parliament, is as follows.
The main problem, according to the Hipkins/Hughes axis, is silos between agencies. These silos have been brought about by individually contracting chief executives for departmental outputs, creating overall coordination problems across different agencies, and missing broader opportunities to make New Zealanders’ lives better through joined-up government.
The new Public Service Bill identifies two main solutions to the problem. The first is more centralisation and stronger hierarchical powers embedded in a newly powerful single super-Commissioner, who can flexibly create new cross-sectoral agencies designed to eliminate silos. The second solution is legislated norms – defined in the bill as “principles and values” – to ensure common cooperative and pro-social behaviours across agencies, again to achieve broader outcomes, but without engaging hierarchical command and control. These norms are codifications in many cases of long-standing notional conventions.
However, while constructing more hierarchy is easy, assessing whether norms are being built and followed is harder. Admittedly, the bill does contain scope for three-yearly briefings by the Commissioner, which among other things will address whether the principles are being upheld. But these briefings are too infrequent. They contain no systematic independent empirical meat. They are too open to being gamed at the top.
There are two relatively cheap but vital suggestions for legislative change that would push public servants towards following the norms and remove significant opportunities for public sector gaming.
Departmental annual reports currently require accounting information on financial performance. The annual reporting requirements (as part of associated reforms in the Public Finance Act) should be significantly expanded to include reporting on achievement (or not) of the norms – the new principles and values.
The principles and values are laudable. They include the value of being politically neutral, delivering free and frank advice, offering merit-based appointments, ensuring open government, good stewardship, and operating with a spirit of service. They also include being impartial, accountable, ethical, respectful and responsive.
Great. But how are these principles and values to be any more than motherhood and apple pie? Once legislation has been passed, one can hear senior public servants delivering some variant to Parliament and the public of, “It’s in our legislation, so of course we do it!” Colour me sceptical on this one.
So how to provide incentives for our public service to better achieve these worthy goals? The part-answer is two-sided information collection and annual reporting under the Public Finance Act.
First, we need to systematically ask ordinary public servants, engaged in their day-to-day work – of, say, advising governments on the best response to climate change or addressing issues of child abuse – the extent to which their agencies make policy and deliver services to New Zealanders in accordance with these principles and values. Is your agency respectful? Is your agency open? Does your agency deliver free and frank advice?
The survey would be asked of all public servants in all agencies. For credibility and confidence of both the staff and wider New Zealand, it would be run by Stats NZ. It would be anonymous. The survey would be designed to be identical across agencies and through time, so performance of each agency in every year could be benchmarked. A common reporting framework – comparing the agency with the rest of the public service through time – would be created for every agency, so they couldn’t game the system by manipulating comparisons. An information collection vehicle and reporting requirement would be a powerful tool to ensure senior management compliance regarding the principles and values of the new system.
At the same time, there are other important outcomes an annual survey can collect. These include staff’s perceptions of their capability, the existence or otherwise of workplace bullying and discrimination (and against whom), attitudes to and achievement of diversity goals, workplace satisfaction, and management performance. Again, information on these dimensions would be able to be benchmarked and would help keep the public service on the straight and narrow.
There’s also the vital other blade of the scissors – how ordinary New Zealanders see their public service operating. The State Services Commission currently runs an annual nationwide survey called Kiwis Count, collected by a private sector provider. It asks people about their encounters with public services, how they have been treated and how they rate their experiences. This approach needs to be beefed up and refocused, as well as included in departmental annual reporting. In addition, to give the public greater confidence in the information and stop potential gaming, the survey should again be run by Stats NZ. (What is Stats NZ for, after all, if it is not to collect official data for New Zealanders?) Additionally, Stats NZ could help address a major issue with this survey – its shamefully low response rate (37 percent in the last survey and falling) and consequent serious questions about its statistical validity. The survey also needs to be re-designed to address, from the perspective of the wider public, the achievement of the principles and values.
These two blades of the information scissors will then work on the principles and values problem, reducing the need for centralised hierarchies, to the benefit of all Kiwis. They would also offer some real meat for the proposed three-yearly briefing on the health of the public service to be undertaken by the Commissioner.