10 September 2019

Thousands of public servants will have been surprised to read Kerry McDonald's op-ed in the Dompost (‘‘There’s a critical need to rebuild the capability of the public service’ Sept 5).  

Like me, they have a different view of our public service. 

The Public Service has a unique role in our nation. It is part of the constitutional architecture that guarantees our form of government and its legitimacy. Sitting behind this are the fundamental principles of political neutrality, free, frank and fearless advice, appointments by merit, open Government and stewardship. 

New Zealand is one of the last countries standing when it comes to a truly neutral, trusted public service. There are reasons why our public service has an enviable international reputation. We rank second among 38 countries in the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index. The latest Kiwis Count Survey (2018) shows New Zealanders have increasing trust and satisfaction with their public services. And the 2018 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index ranks New Zealand second out of 180 countries.

Yes, there have been some difficult issues recently and there may well be more in future. With each generation of citizens come higher and higher expectations of Government and the Public Service. That is a good thing. And we must rise to the challenge. 

No public servant gets out of bed wanting to do a bad job when they come to work. The Public Service is New Zealand’s biggest organisation, employing about 50,000 people, 350,000 if you include all State services agencies. The Public Service employs some of the country’s best talent. I back our public service leaders to do a good job. But from time to time things will go wrong. I can’t promise perfection but we will deliver integrity. My expectation when mistakes are made is that our leaders own it, fix it and learn from it. We front up and are accountable. I make no apologies for that. That is part of my job. And the public expect no less. 

Mr McDonald is right to raise concerns about the need for an independent public service and free and frank advice. I agree with him that these are fundamental. It is incumbent on every generation of public service leaders to protect and nurture political neutrality and free and frank advice. Which is why these principles will soon be embedded in law. 

Mr McDonald is also right to raise the issue of system leadership. The Public Service reforms of the 1990s provided for strong, independent and accountable agencies but not much leadership depth at the system level. The challenges we face into the future require action not only at the agency level but also for the system as a whole to work in concert on the challenges of the day. This requires new leadership. We’ve been working on that. The State Services Commission today is not just the system regulator envisaged in the 1990s reforms, we are also a system leader. The new Public Service Act will keep the clear accountabilities that came with the 90s reforms but we’re going to back that with stronger leadership from the centre.

Working in the Public Service is challenging. Today, New Zealanders expect their government and public service to help them with some of the biggest problems in their lives. It’s about improving the lives of people and the solutions can be complex.  

The Public Service can learn from the private sector, and we have, but the solution for the future is not importing more and more private sector approaches. Some would say we’ve already done too much of that. The Public Service is not a corporation. While the State Services Commissioner is the system leader, he or she is not the chief executives’ manager. Chief executives are accountable for their own departments. 

When things go wrong public servants can be an easy target for commentators. It’s appropriate to shine a light on mistakes and that these issues are debated, and we’re up for that. But most of the time we get it right. Thousands of services are delivered seamlessly to New Zealanders every day, every week of the year. And we’re increasingly getting traction on some of the big issues. As I’ve said before, let’s not forget that public servants work hard, often in challenging circumstances. Many of them, especially those on the frontline, have tough jobs which they do without expecting any thanks.  

Pretty much without exception, all the people I have met over the course of my career as a public servant have been focused, committed, and passionate about making a difference in our country.

Of course, we can do better, and we are, but the fact remains: New Zealanders can be proud of their public service.