Lost in Bureaucracy: Is New Zealand’s Public Service a ‘Yes Minister’ Reality?

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
15 March, 2023

After becoming Prime Minister in May last year, Anthony Albanese got straight to work. Within the first few weeks in office, he fired the heads of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Defence.

It is what Australian Prime Ministers do as soon as they move into The Lodge. They want to show who is in charge. They want to differentiate themselves from their predecessors. They also want to have a team of public servants in place to carry out their plans.

And frankly, why not? That is the democratic mandate incoming governments have.

In New Zealand, matters are more complicated.

On the surface, New Zealand’s public service looks similar to Australia’s. Both have their roots in the Westminster system. That means ministers are supposed to receive free and frank advice from politically neutral and well-qualified public servants.

The caricature of this world is ‘Yes Minister’, the legendary BBC comedy about Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary in the imaginary Department of Administrative Affairs.

But where ‘Yes Minister’ was fiction about the civil service controlling their political masters, this is reality in New Zealand’s ministerial setup. Wellington’s powerful bureaucracy makes governing New Zealand increasingly difficult. More than that, it threatens to thwart future attempts to reform the country.

The first thing that stands out about New Zealand’s public service is its size. For a small country of just over five million people, it is astonishing how many people are now employed in the various ministries. It is even more remarkable how much this figure has grown in recent years.

Take the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment as an example. From 3,336 full-time equivalent positions in 2017, it grew to 5,832 in 2022. Over that time, the number of its managers grew by 44 percent, and it now also employs more than twice the number of clerical and administrative workers.

It is the same story across practically every other New Zealand government department. Employment at the Ministry of Transport is up 102 percent, at the Ministry of Education 55 percent, and at the Ministry for the Environment, 137 percent. All this growth over a mere five years.

New Zealand’s ministerial bureaucracy is a powerful apparatus, now comprising more than 60,000 people. To be clear, this is just the administration, not the front-line staff delivering actual services to the New Zealand people.

However, it is not just the size of the public service that matters. It is also the way it is run.

In Australia, the Australian Public Service Commissioner works within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC). Albanese showed, that the Australian Prime Minister can make these appointments pretty much at will.

New Zealand Prime Ministers do not have this freedom. The New Zealand Public Service Commission sits outside DPMC. It has long been responsible for public sector recruitment, while Ministers and the Prime Minister at best have an indirect influence on departmental appointments. They would struggle to do what Albanese did.

However, that is only part of the problem. It is not just that there is a growing number of New Zealand public servants and that their department heads cannot easily be hired and fired by ministers. It is also that government departments operate at an increasing distance from the political government.

Part of the distance is physical, meaning it can be measured in metres. In most countries around the world, ministers have their offices in the departments they are responsible for. Not so in New Zealand. Here, Ministers have their offices in two buildings adjacent to Parliament – the famous Beehive and Bowen House. The departments, meanwhile, are spread over central Wellington.

The result is that interactions between ministers and their departments are limited. They happen in the minister’s office, outside the ministry.

The other element of the distance is not physical but organisational. Following a reform of the Public Service Act in 2020, the position of the Public Service Commissioner has been elevated. The Commissioner has become the central figure standing between cabinet ministers and the collective of ministry chief executives. This was meant to help coordinate different departments with each other. Its effect has been to elevate the unelected Commissioner to a position more influential than even some of the most senior cabinet ministers.

As a result of these institutional settings, the linkages between the government of the day and the permanent government of the public services have been severed. While ministers remain politically responsible for what happens in their ministries, they are hardly the ones calling the shots anymore.

And how could they? New Zealand ministers cannot easily pick the people running their ministries. They do not even see them all that often. And they have only indirect control over the Public Service Commissioner.

This will be a challenge for any future incoming New Zealand Government keen on reforming any aspect of policy.

To illustrate, let’s say a new education minister wants to change the Ministry of Education’s long-standing preference for “student-led learning” and its constructivist approach to education. The minister could express their expectations, but it would be challenging to steer the large Ministry in a new direction. The minister cannot simply change the Ministry’s leadership team and must rely on their professional cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Ministry could impede the minister’s efforts in a ‘Yes Minister’ fashion. Unfortunately, ministers do not have much time, especially given their three-year parliamentary terms, and it could take years for the minister’s vision to materialise.

There is an institutional dilemma at the heart of New Zealand’s government. New Zealand could maintain its fiction of a Westminster-style, professional and politically neutral service. That sounds good but it is increasingly not the way Wellington behaves in practice.

Or New Zealand could follow Australia’s example and accept that the Government of the day needs more freedom to change the public service’s leadership. Yes, this would politicise the public service in some ways. But it would strengthen the link between ministers and their top bureaucrats and allow the Government of the day to make its choices and implement them.

Anthony Albanese certainly would not have had it any other way.

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