29 February 2024

The following is a full transcript of the speech delivered by the Public Service Commissioner at his official farewell.

I personally thank every public servant who has chosen public service as their career

E ngā mana, e ngā iwi, e rau rangatira mā. 

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. 

I’m overwhelmed at the people who have turned out today. Your excellencies, thank you so much. Prime Minister, your presence is deeply respectful. Thank you so much.

Right Honourable Chris Hipkins, Honourable Carmel Sepuloni, Ministers past and present, members of the Public Service Leadership Team, distinguished guests, colleagues and most of all friends, thank you so much all of you for coming. It’s just incredibly humbling that you would turn out here today for me.

Minister Willis, I think I ought to thank you for this event. I was reluctant. In fact that’s probably a bit of an understatement. 

About 100 years ago, when I completed my bachelor's degree, I advised my parents at the time that there would be no graduation, we wouldn’t be going and I had told the university to send the degree certificate to me through the mail. My father subsequently advised me that there would be a graduation, that we were going, for my mother, for him and for my family.

Up until that point it had never ever occurred to me that any of that would be about anyone else other than me. 

A few weeks ago Minister Willis did a very fine job of channelling my Dad and so here we are today.

It’s a really lovely thing to do, not only for me personally but for the Public Service itself. Whatever my contributions might have been it tells us all that public service matters. And that is something I really do believe in. And I know you do too. 

Getting to here

Forty-three years ago, almost to the day, I signed on to the permanent staff of the Department of Social Welfare. I started at the very bottom, a basic grade clerk. 

Back then we were on probation for the first nine months, kind of like a 90-day trial. They didn’t extend my probation, but the Assistant Director, Benefits and Pensions, did write on my probation report: “Peter would benefit from learning to curb his natural exuberance in the area of speculating on staffing matters”.

Well, I never have quite managed that and look where it’s gotten me! 

Starting out as a basic grade clerk in the old Department of Social Welfare, it never ever occurred to me that I might one day end up running the place, let alone the Public Service itself. 

In Wellington District Office the top dog was the District Director. I knew who he was because I had to sign his name on correspondence. Mr Lambie. We were all too lowly to use our own. I think his first name might have been John, but I couldn’t be sure of that! I saw him a handful of times, but I don’t remember speaking to him.  

When I got promoted to a junior role in Head Office, the top dog was the Director-General of Social Welfare, Mr Grant. One day I stepped into the lift and he was there right in front of me. I froze!

And then years later, of course, I became him. One day I was in the lift when the doors opened and a young woman got in. She looked at me and froze! “Oh”, she said, “It’s you!”. “Yes”, I said “It’s me”. “I would have thought you would have your own lift!” she said.  “I wish!” I said to myself. In my head. 

I asked for my own lift, but it never arrived. 

But many years later, Chris Hipkins, I did get a ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (your words) in the newly refurbished National Office of the Ministry of Education which caused me to recede in my career prospects and you to advance in yours. 

For me Mr Lambie and Mr Grant were incredibly powerful people. But during the whole of the time I’ve held these sorts of jobs I’ve never once felt like that. But I have always felt responsible. All of the time. As all of you do. 

And we feel responsible because the stakes are high.

We are well served by our political leaders

I’d like to say a few things about our political leaders.

I reckon that across my 43 years I’ve worked with about fifty different Ministers of the Crown. As Minister Hekia Parata used to say, that’s a ship load of Ministers.

And there was not one of them I could not respect.

Our country is well served by those who have the courage to step up into political leadership roles.

Mostly people do it because they care. They care about our country, they care about our people and they care about their communities. And they want to make a difference.

I respect the people who choose to serve in this way but, as a public servant, I also respect the roles they serve in.

Many say our system works best when there is a partnership between public servants and Ministers. Yes and no. “Yes”, because that is the mode of engagement that gets the best out of us and “no” because we are not equals. As public servants we are subordinate to our political leaders. They operate with the democratic mandate of the people. We do not. And we ought always to remember that and respect it.

But leaders get the best out of their staff when they respect them, empower them and listen to them. And for the most part that has been my experience.

Neither are we independent of our political leaders. As public servants we are politically neutral, but that doesn’t mean we’re independent of the government. That would be undemocratic. No one elected us. The Public Service is part of the Executive Branch Government. We are part of the Government. That’s how people see us. And they’re right.

Being a Minister of the Crown is a tough gig. It takes courage, resilience, patience, smarts and a lot of support. It’s a job that takes its toll and comes at a cost.

I have been incredibly privileged to have worked with some absolutely outstanding Ministers. And some of the best of them are in this room today.

And while I was always very proper and correct about roles when I worked for you, some of you have gone on to become friends. And that is my privilege.

Our little country in incredibly well served by our political leaders. Working so closely with them I know just what it takes and I am always saddened when I hear others disparage them.

We are well served by our public service

Our country is equally well served by our Public Service, as I said in Select Committee last week.

Just four months ago we had a General Election. There was a change of government, a change of direction, new priorities and a new programme.

That change has been managed smoothly, swiftly and without too many bumps. Our Public Service is now supporting the new Government with the same professionalism and responsiveness it served the last Government.

That is democracy in action.

There are very few countries in the world where you would see this.

It is a taonga in our country and we ought to work hard to preserve and protect it.

Every day of the working week public servants right across New Zealand get up, leave their families and their homes, get on buses, trains, into cars and come to work.

They do that mostly because they care and want to make a difference. They do that because they have a spirit of service to their communities.

That spirit of service is also a taonga and, as the Public Service Act says, we ought to “preserve, protect and nurture” it.

When we are able to harness that spirit, connect it to the needs of citizens and communities and empower people to make a difference, that’s when the magic happens.

I believe that you get the best out of people by appealing to the best in people. And in the Public Sector that’s the spirit of service that people bring to their work.

That’s what the Public Service reform journey we’ve been on over the last decade and a half is all about.

I’ve tried to make the most of the opportunities we’ve had to move forward over the last few years but there are plenty more in front of us.

And as the Public Service works with new leadership and a new Government to do that I say “all power to your arms”! 

The challenge ahead

People often ask me what it is that I worry about most in this job. And the answer is easy: public trust and confidence. And that is pretty much the same answer as my colleagues give right around the world.

Because all around the world trust in government and its institutions is receding.

Here in New Zealand, we enjoy really high levels of trust and confidence by world standards – both on citizen experience and on our brand as the Public Service as a whole. And we’ve increased that by a full ten percentage points over the last decade.

But the world is changing around us. In particular, I worry about the misinformation and disinformation pushed at light speed around the world through social media.

There is no objective truth delivered by Philip Sherry on the six o’clock news anymore. Today we get our truth through the algorithms of social media precisely curated to our own interests and prejudices and biases.

The impact of this on social cohesion, civil society and the effective operation of our democracy is profound.

In the Public Service we are going to have to get a whole lot better at communicating with customers, clients, citizens at the individual level; at engaging with them authentically, giving them a voice and responding to that.

We are going to need to get better at involving them in policy and service design and empowering communities and others to meet citizens’ needs alongside or instead of government agencies.

The good news is that in many areas we have already started this journey. 

Alongside all that we need to continue to deliver strong, responsive public services that citizens can rely on. And to do that respectfully and with honesty and integrity.

This is what citizens tell us they value, but we will need to work hard to stay in front of their increasing expectations of us.

Thank you

Some ‘thank yous’. Nothing that I have achieved could have been achieved without the support of the people in this room and beyond.

I want to acknowledge the Public Service Leadership Team – a group of absolutely outstanding leaders. You are a team, and that’s what got us through so many challenges, including COVID.

And also the staff of the Public Service Commission – a tiny little organisation jam-packed full of people who really care and have a huge impact. I’m so proud of you.

Many of the executive assistants who have worked with me through my chief executive career are here today. Jenny, Michelle, Krisna, Reid, Toni thank you for coming.

It is an extraordinary thing to have as your full-time job supporting one other person to succeed in theirs. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without you. Thank you so very much.

It has been a privilege to do the jobs I’ve done. And it has been the privilege of my life to lead our Public Service as Public Service Commissioner.

I feel I have done my best. Pretty much. That’s not to say I’ve gotten everything right. But I feel like I’ve left everything on the field as they say. Maybe too much.

I believe that when you leave, you leave. I will not be popping up in the media as one of those annoying expert commentators. There will be no ‘kiss and tell’ memoire. And I will not be joining the Grumpy Old Men’s Club.


So, it’s time. It’s time for fresh leadership at the Head of the Public Service. And it’s time for me to focus on some other things in my life.

And both are for the better.

On Thursday next week I will be switching the radio over to the Concert Programme. The suits and ties are going into the back of the wardrobe. And on Friday morning I’m going to have a bit of a lie in. 

Well, at least, that’s the theory of it!

Thank you. All of you. Each of you. For everything.

To the public servants in the room: very soon I will be up on the outside looking in. But know this: I believe in you. And I will always back you. 

I wish you, all of you, the very best.

Nā reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Ngā mihi nui, kia koutou katoa.