What ails the public service and why?

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
NZ Herald
8 March, 2023

Rob Campbell’s uncalled-for derogatory comment about National‘s “three waters” replacement policy has raised concerns about public service bias in New Zealand. His is not the only case.

New Zealand’s public service was built in the UK Westminster tradition. Our public servants have always been free to be politically partisan in their private lives. At the same time, public service agencies have to be seen to be politically neutral. They must serve a new incoming government with the same integrity, competence and discretion with which they served the outgoing government.

The need for public service impartiality under the Westminster system is clear. A new government cannot appoint its own people to the top layers of the public service. Yet it has a mandate from the electorate to implement its programme. The public service has no such mandate. It serves the public interest by serving the elected government.

A new incoming government needs a public service that advises but does not obstruct or sabotage Parliament’s programme. Even the perception that it might do so is a problem. Lack of trust between the Minister and the agency impedes effective government.

Countries such as Germany and the United States address these issues differently. They allow a new government to appoint its own people to the leadership positions in government agencies. That solves the trust and incentive problem.

It takes a lot of self-discipline under the Westminster system for the public service to maintain the perception that it is politically neutral. Cabinet ministers in a new government have likely been in opposition parties for two or more parliamentary terms. Some will have become suspicious of public sector neutrality. They have spent years watching senior public servants defending their Minister’s policies as best they can, while trying to remain impartial.

Some in the new government may suspect that some public servants are privately politically partisan. Indeed, they may be, but if they are professional they can still serve the next government well.

When a senior public servant feels unable to work with a current government, the correct thing for that person to do is to resign. It is the Minister who should stay.

Under our system, heads of government agencies who speak up on contentious public policy matters in an election year put their agency’s future effectiveness at risk. When I was a greenhorn Treasury official in the 1970s, the then Secretary to the Treasury, Henry Lang, was very clear that he would not give a public presentation to any audience in an election year.

The wisdom of that precaution soon become obvious. The 1975 general election was in good part a political fight over the funding of national superannuation. The opposition National party proposed to replace Labour’s implemented fully funded scheme by an unfunded scheme. During the campaign National’s leader, Robert Muldoon, ominously noted Lang’s original support for a fully funded scheme. That raised a doubt as to whether Muldoon would work with Lang.

In the event, National was elected in 1975 and Muldoon and Lang were able to work together professionally and constructively. National’s unfunded ‘pay-as-you-go’ scheme is still the one we have today.

This anecdote illustrates why it is dicey under our system for top public servants to speak out on controversial party-political issues. They can give unpalatable advice, but they need to accept the government’s right to decide and avoid subsequently attacking the decision. (Lang had an orthodox public policy rationale for supporting the fully-funded superannuation option when Labour was proposing it. He did not enter the subsequent political debate.)

From a traditional perspective, Campbell’s dismissal is positive. It is a lesson to others in high positions to remember their institutional responsibilities.

A more troubling perspective is that the support for Campbell is further evidence that our Westminster tradition is on its way out.

Following are some of the symptoms of its decline. Public sector tenure at the top is no longer a sinecure. Appointment on merit was hoped for. But that now seems to be subservient to many political considerations, such as compliance with prevailing attitudes to diversity, inequality, climate change, and Treaty issues.

Dr Michael Cullen grossly violated the Westminster convention that a Minister does not publicly attack his own department when he was Minister of Finance. (He dismissed, as an “ideological burp”, Treasury’s mainstream, empirically robust advice that higher marginal tax rates have disincentive effects.) He is far from alone in undermining that convention.

It is also troubling that government agencies now openly advocate policy agendas for themselves. They write aspirational ‘visions’ of what they think would be good for New Zealanders–if no other goals had to be sacrificed in the process. Yet $5 million spent on one ‘worthy’ thing could, for example, have been spent on road safety to save one statistical human life. To ignore cost is to fail to take community wellbeing seriously.

Partisan advocacy is self-serving, but many government agencies represent a partisan interest.

The weakness of the public service is also evident in its increasing use of external contractors and consultants. This is despite the growth in public service numbers greatly exceeding population growth since 2000. Those developments suggest a failure to employ on merit.

Together these are symptoms of malaise. The “why” question asks about causes. Answering that question is important, but not easy. Responsibility lies variously with the Public Service Commission, portfolio Ministers, Parliament, and voters.

An overtly politicised system empowers capable, well-grounded and well-informed Ministers who know what needs to be done. It may work less well than a public service in the Westminster tradition in the case of Ministers who lack those virtues. Or it may not.

Either way, New Zealand apparently faces a choice between the politically neutral public service model and an explicitly politicised one. But is a return to the Westminster tradition possible?

Consideration of these issues needs more analysis and much more public debate.

Read more

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates