Ideas to Build Public Sector Performance - Colin James

In December 2020, IPANZ hosted an event that focused on what to expect in 2021 and what ideas (radical or not) public servants might consider. Many ideas came out. IPANZ will always welcome these challenges and hope our readers do too. 

Colin James was on the panel for this event. He was asked to give some “radical thoughts” on the public service – thoughts that could be picked up by public servants. Here’s what he came up with -

Putting “radical” and “public service” in the same sentence is quite a stretch. Roger Douglas found that in the 1980s – Treasury officials of that time talked of proposing reforms only to find Roger turn up with an envelope on the back of which he had sketched far more ambitious ideas. Bill English complained in 2009 that the Treasury and other departments were comfortably enclosed in a box and he was having trouble getting them out. Another senior public servant tells me of the time Simon Power turned up with a much more far-reaching regulatory reform package than his bureaucrats were daring to suggest. (Simon Power had a radical thought of his own: all briefings with the words “going forward” in them were returned to the writer to reframe.)

Those comments suggest public servants are, by habit or timorousness, generally more attuned to fighting the last war than the coming one and think serving the minister discharges their duty to the public.

Yet I have come across many public servants with brains, insight, and imagination, who can and do think seriously about what the future might bring and what the public thinks and hopes for – that is, what is and what could be. These qualities are particularly relevant now, when the world this country has to live in is changing and will go on changing, geopolitically, geo-economically, technologically, and demographically, as well as generationally. That demands big policy change, which requires innovation, new ways of thinking, and new language.

A senior public servant told me a couple of weeks back that big change has to come from the politicians (think Roger, think Bill, think Simon). This senior public servant – for whom I have great respect and liking – does think some deep rethinking is needed but also thinks that it is not the public service’s role to push it too far.

Is that serving the public? In what high respect will public servants be held if – I would say when – house prices crash? OK, for now you are shielded from having to think too hard or too far into the future: the elite in charge of the executive are not radicals.

But public servants owe a duty to the public to do the expansive thinking now so there is something on the shelf to guide future radical ministers or to help non-radical ministers when more of the same won’t suffice.

That duty of always keeping in mind the wider and longer public interest is inherent in the words “public servant”.

So, here are some wild ideas.

1. Each ministry, department, and agency should set up an informal group of 25 to 35-year-olds who will meet over a drink every second Thursday, where they’ll explore a wide agenda and frame searching questions for the senior leadership team and require that senior leadership team to give timely responses that seriously address those questions.

2. Next, paste this rule on the wall of every office: “The minister’s electoral future has nothing to do with you and you must scrupulously give advice and carry out your duties with that fact uppermost in your mind.”

3. Paste another rule on the wall of every office: “Your deep responsibility is to the public you serve; your operational responsibility is to carry out lawful orders.” That is, keep in mind at all times the needs, aspirations, and opportunities of the public and the longer-term implications of going on doing what you are doing as the world and our society change.

4. See your task as focused on opportunity, not problem. Very few people in Gore or Hawea would not prefer opportunity to problem as a guide to action.

5. Know that the public you serve lives under the umbrella of the Treaty of Waitangi, a pact between two cultures and histories that both merge and are distinct. The Treaty cannot be “settled”. It lives, breathes, and evolves. Be on constant lookout for the next evolution. Learn te reo.

6. Operate by the Ashley Bloomfield dictum: “Leadership is an invitation to collective action.” Anyone in charge of anyone else in the public service must manage down and across, not up.

7. When appointing managers, value expertise in what the agency is supposed to do. The specifics of what an agency does is by definition not generic. Yes, you need skilled operational managers and accountants, but chief executives and senior managers need skills related to the task.

8. Work with, and regard as equals in that work, not-for-profits and local councils.

9. And, to get all this moving, make IPANZ a mass membership organisation funded by individual membership subscriptions, not one funded by, and so beholden to, the ministries, departments, and agencies that now fund it.