Taking Stewardship Seriously

JONATHAN BOSTON of the School of Government, Victoria University, asks how the idea of stewardship will be applied.

For public servants, exercising wise stewardship is mandatory; it is not optional. Morally, it has long been a relevant and important obligation. Legally, it has been a specific and significant duty since the passing of the State Sector Amendment Act in 2013. Recently, the Public Service Act 2020 has strengthened the stewardship obligations of public service chief executives and their staff. It is now critical for these obligations to be taken seriously and accorded a high priority.

The Public Service Act refers to stewardship in several key sections. First, under Section 12 “stewardship” constitutes one of the five core public service principles. These principles apply to all parts of the public service (that is, departments, departmental agencies, interdepartmental executive boards, interdepartmental ventures, and Crown agents). Equally, stewardship applies to a broad range of functions and capabilities: human resources, “institutional knowledge and information”, “systems and processes”, “assets”, and “the legislation administered by agencies”. Moreover, the Act requires the public service to “proactively promote stewardship”. Hence, the pursuit of stewardship must not be perfunctory, episodic, or a mere “nice to have”; rather, it must be centre-stage: deliberate, considered, rigorous, integral, continuous, and systematic.

Second, Section 52 takes matters a step further. Under this provision, the chief executives of departments and departmental agencies are expected to “support” their “Minister to act as a good steward of the public interest”. This includes: “maintaining public institutions, assets, and liabilities”; “maintaining the currency of any legislation administered by their agency”; and “providing advice on the long-term implications of policies”. All this reflects one of the core purposes of the public service, namely, to support “the Government to pursue the long-term public interest” (see Section 11). Precisely what constitutes the “long-term public interest” will doubtless remain contentious. Societies have multiple long-term interests, and they are often in tension.

Third, in keeping with these provisions, the Public Service Commissioner will be expected to assess the quality of stewardship exercised by public service chief executives when reviewing their performance. The Commissioner may also, as specified in Section 16, review the extent to which public service chief executives, public service agencies, and Crown agents are “promoting stewardship” when preparing the new three-yearly briefings of the state of the public service required by the Act. Note, too, that the purpose of these briefings, as specified in the Act, is to “promote stewardship of the public service”.

Statutory requirements of this nature, of course, beg numerous questions. What exactly is stewardship? And how should it be assessed?

The concept of stewardship has a long history and a rich meaning. It is linked to “guardianship”, “trusteeship”, the exercise of “fiduciary duties”, and the kaupapa Māori concept of kaitiakitanga. Fundamentally, it is about the careful, diligent, honest, and responsible management of those things that are entrusted to one’s care – resources, assets, institutions, and systems of governance. Being a thoughtful steward includes taking a long view, exercising foresight, anticipating risks and opportunities, and acting prudently – in short, demonstrating wisdom and sound judgment.

With our world facing grave existential threats, good stewardship is ever more critical. Accordingly, public officials must look beyond the immediate horizon, be alert to emerging risks, identify how best to safeguard the interests of future generations, and grapple with the demands of intergenerational justice and wellbeing. Such attributes are at the heart of the emerging concept of “anticipatory governance” – or, in simple terms, taking proper care of tomorrow today.

While the qualities of good stewardship can be readily described, their application in specific institutional contexts is much harder. Hence, if the provisions of the Public Service Act are to be properly understood and well-implemented, the Public Service Commission and other central agencies must provide appropriate guidance to public service chief executives and their staff. Such guidance should include relevant principles and performance standards, covering both decision-making processes and desired organisational behaviours and outcomes. Without this, the goal of better stewardship is destined to remain a pious hope – in Shakespearean terms, “full of sound and fury” yet “signifying nothing”. Future generations deserve better.