With change comes opportunity – preparing to serve the government of the day

From Liz MacPherson, IPANZ President

31 October 2023

This post-election government formation period is not an easy time for public servants. The pre-election period has dwelt on criticism of the public service. This is not easy to hear, especially without the ability to respond. Then there are the threats of cuts to the state sector, particularly the lack of value put upon ‘back office’ jobs. And there are a plethora of new ideas and policies to be implemented which will require considerable work, potentially with diminishing resources.

When we take stock at this time, what is it that we know?

We know that New Zealand’s public service is highly regarded – that 82% of New Zealanders trust public services based on their personal experience. That trust in the public service jumped up in time of crisis (COVID) to a 69% peak, from historical levels of around 50% or lower. But that this trust remains lower for Māori and disabled people (data from Kiwis Count survey).

We know that central and local government consumption has been growing at an increasing rate over the past ten years (see graph). In the decade to June 2023 so-called government consumption (i.e. spending on public services like law and order) increased by an average of 4% per year, significantly faster than the population (1.4%) over the same period. Achieving something like the projected flat-to-falling government consumption signaled in the Pre-Election Budget and Economic Fiscal Update will represent a significant challenge, yet alone delivering on further cuts.

Figure: Treasury forecast of general government consumption expenditure (i.e. public spending on real goods and services such as corrections and defence but not transfers like welfare, debt servicing, etc), adjusted for inflation.

We know that despite increased government expenditure there remain areas of unmet need and service failure, and that the social, economic, environmental and geo-political context poses questions to which there are no easy answers.

We know that such challenges can only be met through clear, disciplined prioritisation. Too many priorities results in a diminution in service delivery and lacklustre performance on many fronts. Across the board 'haircuts' are a blunt, poorly targeted tool. Making evidence-based decisions about what will be stopped (and really stopping them) and functions that will not be funded is necessary to resource real progress in critical areas. Such decisions are the role of Government Ministers. It is their job. Clear Ministerial priorities help public servants do their job – serving the public through the Government of the day.

We also know that our non-partisan public service wants to help the incoming Government get up to speed as quickly as possible; to assist them in the challenging decisions they will need to make. That giving non-partisan free and frank advice can help achieve that. That this advice needs to be provided mindful of the fact that the incoming Government has a mandate and set of policies it wants to implement. Listening to understand the outcomes the incoming Government is seeking to achieve and being ready to provide options on how to best achieve them is key to establishing the effective working relationship between Ministers and non-partisan public servants, which is an essential tenet of our Westminister system of government.

We know that the coming year will be a test of agility for the public sector. That while there is much to be proud of, all is not perfect and there is scope for improvement. It is not a time to be defensive. Nor a time to hold onto ways of doing things that are not effective. Rather, change brings an opportunity to grapple with aspects of the state services which you have long wanted to improve. An opportunity to show the new Government (and the public that elected them) that the public service is ready and capable to explore new ways of delivering value.