IPANZ President Liz MacPherson has highlighted the toll of the last four years upon public servants and the increasingly difficult external environment impacting everyone in our upcoming Public Sector Journal. And yet public servants will need to be ready to energetically implement whatever 100-day plan is presented to them after the election. Kia kaha to all public servants from IPANZ.
Kay Booth, Executive Director
A time for reflection
The public service is a burning issue in this election campaign – its numbers, spending and performance a political football. Facts are chosen to make a point rather than provide accuracy and the aim is for competition in debate rather than thoughtful deliberation. This is not easy for public servants.
It is not possible for them to enter the debate and put another perspective, and it is not a time to be defensive. The task for the public servant is to be open-minded, reflect on the critique and be ready to serve whichever government New Zealanders choose.
IPANZ has selected key points from three media articles that merit consideration. This does not represent an endorsement of these ideas. It is shared to promote reflection and preparation.
In an article from The Post, Ben Thomas argues that the public sector is underperforming. He claims a poll shows that New Zealanders believe the health, education and criminal justice systems have got worse in the last three years. He talks of a breakdown in relationships between ministers and public service officials, in relation to both communication and accountability – but gives no evidence of this. It must be difficult for New Zealanders to work out whether any failures are explained by the policy pursued by Governments, implementation by the public service, or neither of these.
The author describes the view that the public service has been hollowed out of expertise, explained by a greater focus on generalists, more consultants doing policy work, and nominal pay freezes. This theme of devaluing specialists, in favour of generalists, is frequently mentioned. Is this true and, if so, does it need to shift?
Putting forward the perception of an inward-looking public service, he would like to see a return to more formal and measurable targets and goals and a return, for example, to the social investment approach. These are matters public servants could think about, partly to be well informed of the nature and implication of such approaches, but also to be ready to respond and implement.
The size of the public service is a perennial battle ground for politicians especially in an election year. You only need to google ‘numbers of public servants’ to read the media on “ballooning numbers” of “Wellington bureaucrats”. Figures of a public service “27.8% bigger in 2022 than in 2017” are quoted.
On the other hand, there is evidence that the public sector as a proportion of the workforce has remained stable for the past 20 years. The public service makes up the same proportion (14%) of the public sector as it did in 2017.
There are so many ill-defined variables – public service or overall public sector? Full time equivalents or head count? Over what period of time? What sort of roles? What other factors are at play? It is impossible to disentangle. However, the fact that New Zealanders perceive public service wastage and inefficiency really matters. Maybe public servants themselves see duplication, poor use of resources, unnecessary processes, or poor performance which they believe could be rectified?
You will have read about the attention to be given to productivity in New Zealand. The Productivity Commission reported some years ago that productivity of the public sector is not regularly measured as “there is little demand for measurement of productivity”. Maybe that will now change.
3. Questions about merit-based appointments
BusinessDesk has published a series of articles about the public service. They are pay walled so we cannot attach them here. Reflecting on a point raised about merit-based appointments...
In the survey of public servants by IPANZ and BusinessDesk, it was reported that the merit principle largely operates well – that the person best suited to the role is appointed. But, as with all the principles in the Public Service Act 2020, active upholding of this principle is crucial.
The author of these articles claims that there are a number of public service Chief Executives who will have been CEs in the public service between 13 and 17 years without a competitive process for selection. There are of course reasons given for the recent decision to extend some public service Chief Executive contracts to 2027. But, as the Auditor General warned, risks arise when senior public service roles are filled without going to the open market.
Is enough training offered to politicians?
The training of politicians must be top of many people’s minds right now. These two articles by Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment and Sir Geoff Mulgan promote greater emphasis upon this, noting:
- Some countries do this training well. For example, the McKinnon Institute in Australia has developed a sophisticated curriculum. This includes simulations on how to make decisions under pressure and role plays.
- The absolute importance of understanding mindsets and the importance of self-knowledge and team-work, as well as the basics of law, science and government processes.
- Many politicians have never managed the number of people or large budgets they now control. If they have done so in business, they find they face more complex expectations, and need to meet value rather than profit-led goals.
There is no comprehensive research and training on political management, so it is not surprising there is problematic practice. Time for greater emphasis on training of politicians?
IPANZ New Professionals recently ran a session on navigating the pre- and post-election periods – their write up is in the upcoming Public Sector journal (which will arrive in your email box 26 September). Here is their top tips, taken from that article:
- Be aware of political party language – phrases commonly used by a government may have naturally become a part of your everyday speech. This could be seen as political if a new government does not use this language.
- Official Information Act and other information requests continue as usual.
- ‘Play it with a straight bat’ – be cautious about how the public may perceive your words and actions, even in a personal capacity. Think about the forum and audience, don’t sign up to party political newsletters with a work email, and be conscious of your social media following.
- Your role in the public service matters – everyone is subject to the same rules, but depending on your role, you may attract greater public scrutiny.
- Remember that potential issues also occur in an employment context.
- You are not alone – there is a lot of guidance out there (see Te Kawa Mataaho’s general election guidance), and you can always escalate anything if you are unsure.
This author asks us to embrace the silo culture for some parts of our work. She believes continual demands to ‘get out of your silos’ devalues specialisms in the public sector and reduces real accountability. While supportive of communication and engagement between teams, she says “Taking people from within their field of specialty and aligning them around a common purpose or goal is a wonderful thing to be able to do”.
Sponge cities bring multiple advantages without considerable cost
The ‘sponge city’ can mitigate extreme weather, save lives and make cities more pleasant places in which to live. As this report from the Helen Clark Foundation and WSP makes clear, New Zealand’s urban stormwater infrastructure is already ageing and inadequate, even without the highly damaging increase in rainfall, very well illustrated in this article from The Conversation.
Both these excellent articles assert there is an opportunity now to build cities differently and avoid what will otherwise be certain expensive catastrophic results.
Recommendations include, for example, raising the national minimum standards governing the percentage of the total area of new developments that must be left unsealed. Another example, neighbourhoods could be retrofitted to include green roofs, permeable pavements and unsealed car parks.
Somehow, local and central government need to get this vital message over to New Zealanders and then make it happen.
This is a study of child maltreatment in Australia. The methodology is gold standard, these results can be entirely relied upon. They tell a very depressing story, for example:
- 40% of Australian adults 16-65+ have experienced exposure to domestic violence.
- Girls experience a markedly higher level of sexual abuse than boys (37% vs 19%) and a higher level of emotional abuse (36% vs 25%).
- Child maltreatment is strongly associated with mental disorders in adulthood, especially anxiety and depressive disorders.
- Child maltreatment increases the odds of health risk behaviours, e.g. children who experienced child maltreatment were 5 times more likely to be dependent on cannabis.
This data baseline and enables tracking of the outcomes of public policy interventions. If the situation is the same in New Zealand, surely it promotes high priority action?
- Tuesday 26 September, Wellington, 12.00 - 1.30pm: Centrally-Enabled, Locally-Led Workshop: introductory session - Inspiring Communities, in partnership with IPANZ, bring you this free introductory session where they’ll unpack the sticky issues we face trying to enable community responses and solutions within a government context. Packed with practical tools, examples and inspiration, this a great opportunity for you and your colleagues to navigate creative ways of working with community. Register here.
- Thursday 26 October, Auckland, 5.30 - 7.00pm: New Professionals: Empowered Voices: Intersectionality in the Public Sector - The IPANZ new professionals, Auckland Government Women's Network and the Pan-Asian Public Sector Network brings you this panel discussion that will delve into the experiences of women and gender-diverse people who are young professionals in the public sector. This event will cover topics such as fostering inclusive work environments, identity in the workplace and career journeys. Register here.
- Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 15 November, Wellington, 9.30am - 4.30pm: Effective Engagement with Māori - This sell-out two-day workshop is back. Register now to secure your spot! Designed to help public service kaimahi, workers, gain a greater understanding of Te Ao Māori (Māori world view), Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and provide practical tools and techniques for effectively engaging with Māori.
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