Public service reboot needed

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
3 March, 2023

The sacking of Rob Campbell from his role as chair of Te Whatu Ora/Health NZ and the Environmental Protection Authority highlights an urgent need to reform New Zealand’s public service.

Campbell’s partisan comments on his LinkedIn profile were inexcusable for someone in his position. But they were also symptomatic of a wider problem, which is the politicisation of the public service.

This politicisation is not necessarily party-political in nature. Rather, it is that the public service has developed its own idiosyncratic mindset.

At the risk of overgeneralising, the public service usually prefers central government programmes to local solutions. It believes in the power of the state and distrusts markets. It also works towards maintaining and growing itself, even when its failures become impossible to ignore.

The Wellington bureaucracy has certainly learnt how to protect itself. It has the strength that comes with numbers. Meetings in which an unsuspecting private sector person suddenly faces two dozen public servants are not unheard of.

New Zealand’s public service is the operating system on which politicians try to install their policy apps. They might want to install a new crime-fighting app, a new education app, or a new health app. But if these apps are not compatible with the public service's operating system, the installation will fail. It’s like installing an Android app on an iPhone. It just does not work.

Public service reform may seem abstract and unexciting, but it is essential. Because the public service needs a reboot of its reformability.

What a functional public service can achieve was demonstrated in the reforms that rescued the New Zealand economy in the 1980s. Though politicians get credited for them, they would not have happened without the foresight and preparedness of qualified and committed senior public servants.

A future reform-minded Government will find it much harder than the Labour Government did in the 1980s.

There are not enough people inside the public service today who could design and lead such reforms. On the contrary, we can expect large parts of the public service to resist evidence-based reforms that might upset the status quo.

As a Wellington-based organisation, we are aware of these challenges. That is why questions of design and implementation of policy are front of mind for us. The best policy ideas are worthless if they cannot be practically implemented.

Public service reform is needed to address the challenges facing New Zealand. If the Campbell affair triggered a broad discussion on what to do about the public service, that would be a positive outcome.

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