Friday, June 04, 2004

Shouldn't I be doing something else?

As preparation for another assignment, I'm considering the ways in which Labour has retreated from the 80's and 90's "reforms" since being elected. Not economicly, but with regard to the organisation and management of the public service.

A few of the examples I can think of:

  • (Re)-amalgamation: in the 80's and 90's we were very keen on single-purpose organisations, and on separating policy advice from service delivery. And so we split everything up. Labour has reversed this - recombining WINZ and the old social policy ministry into the Ministry of Social Development, reuniting Ministry of Health and the Health Funding Authority, and combining several related ministries into the Ministry of Economic Development.
  • Bringing SOEs back under control: The SOE model was supposed to keep state-operated businesses at arm's-length from the government to prevent political interference. But this may have gone too far, and resulted in both a loss of capability and in SOE's acting contrary to the purpose for which they're constituted. An example of the first is the electricity industry - corporatisation has allowed long-term planning for New Zealand's energy needs to fall through the cracks, meaning that our electricity market does not guarantee security of supply or even of delivery - hence the Electricity Commission. An example of the latter is the TVNZ Charter, designed to turn TVNZ back into a state broadcaster rather than a bunch of corporate whores.
  • Capacity building: It became apparent in the late 90's that the emphasis on "outputs" and "key result areas" was leading to management by checklist. This resulted in a long-term loss of capability in the public service - stuff that wasn't on the checklist simply didn't get done, and staff and units that weren't immediately and obviously useful were dumped. It also led to a "silo mentality" among managers - they looked only at their narrow function (as defined by their checklists), and anything else wasn't their job. This led to the debacle of the 1999 election, when the Department of the Courts refused to make its staff available to assist, despite it being one of their responsibilities in the past.

    Labour has made a lot of noise about "rebuilding the public service", and has thrown money at "capacity building": funding some things simply so they exist. They've also encouraged a "whole of government approach" (a fancy word for what Sesame Street called "co-operation") to ensure that messes like the 1999 election never happen again.

  • Restoring the public service ethos: Once upon a time, public servants were actually public servants: anonymous politically neutral professionals who were there to serve the public rather than themselves. The "reforms" undermined that traditional public service ethic and replaced it with corporate values. Selfishness, short-term thinking and corporate excess became common. And so we got Christine Rankin, golden handshakes, and excessive "team building" exercises at exclusive hideaways.

    Labour has tried to stamp this out and restore proper public service values. They ditched Rankin, convened a "State Sector Standards board" to examine the question, directed departments and Crown Entities to end excessive management payouts, and had the State Services Commissioner lay down the law. And it seems to be working. OTOH, this sort of thing takes a generation to rebuild, whereas it takes only a few quick years to destroy.

If anybody has any other good examples, I'd love to hear them.