Legitimacy of the Public Service

It is vital that the Public Service, in making decisions that impact on people, is seen as legitimate by the public. This can also be described as the Public Service’s ‘licence to operate’. It requires strong connections between the Public Service and New Zealand’s communities, cultures, and traditions – including our democratic and constitutional heritage. It also requires a very high ethical standard of Public Service behaviour and operations, and it requires public servant conduct in day-to-day interactions with the public to be grounded in a common spirit of service to the community.

In all other overseas jurisdictions trust in government has been in decline. New Zealand has stood out against this trend, with measurable increases in trust in government, but we will not be immune unless we take steps to strengthen the performance of the Public Service in terms of legitimacy.

Two specific actions to strengthen legitimacy now stand out as over-arching priorities:

  • facilitating active citizenship and open government
  • strengthening the relationship between Māori and the Crown
  • achieving diversity in the Public Service workforce and inclusiveness in Public Service workplaces.

Active citizenship and open government

New Zealand aspires to be an inclusive and cohesive society. This has implications for how the Public Service works, including an obligation to foster active citizenship and open government.  

In the last term of Government progress has been made on open government through New Zealand’s participation in the Open Government Partnership and though the proactive release of Cabinet documents. Action over the next term needs to build on these first steps, and focus on embedding practices around openness across a broader front of government activities.  

Active citizenship depends crucially on citizens having access to the decision-making processes that affect them. Traditionally we have built capability and good practice around consultation on government decision-making. For the future we will need to go further than this if the Public Service is to reflect an increased public expectation of participation. Concepts of partnership with communities, and co-design of services, are part of the vocabulary of the Public Service. The challenge now is to develop the capability and working practices to carry this into widespread practice.

Māori-Crown relationship

The relationship between the Crown and Māori is fundamental to New Zealand nationhood, and will remain so. Issues continue to be raised and must be addressed; this will always be a feature of the New Zealand polity. A Public Service that cannot effectively help Ministers engage on these places its reputation at risk among a large segment of society. Development of capability to support the Crown in this area will also contribute to the Public Service reflecting the communities it serves.

In the last term of Government, some foundations were laid to strengthen the Public Service’s capability and role in supporting the Māori-Crown relationship. This included explicit legislative mention of this role for the first time in the Public Service Act, and the establishment of Te Arawhiti | The Office for Māori Crown Relations to drive improved public service capability. There are a number of further steps that can be taken to build on these foundations, including:

  • strengthening leadership of this work within the Commission and across the system. A Māori advisory committee has already been established to advise the Public Service Commissioner on the implementation of the Public Service Act. There are opportunities to use future appointments and the system leadership tools in the Act to put greater emphasis on this aspect of the Public Service’s role
  • building on requirements in the new Act to build and maintain capability within agencies to engage with Māori and understand Māori perspectives; for example, through implementation of agency capability plans and annual reporting.

Depending on the Government’s priorities in this area, there are further options to transform how the Public Service works in partnership with Māori to improve outcomes. We are working with Te Arawhiti and Te Puni Kōkiri to consider these options and will keep you updated as this progresses.

Diversity and inclusion

The Public Service, either as a result of government policy or by operation of the law, makes decisions and exercises authority in ways that directly impact the lives and wellbeing of New Zealanders. It is therefore important that the Public Service not be seen as external to or set apart from society, but rather as an integral part of society reflecting the mix and makeup of the general population. It is important that the Public Service reflects the communities it serves.

This has implications for the Public Service now in terms of:

  • ensuring that the leadership of the Public Service is properly representative of the wider New Zealand society
  • positioning the Public Service to be reflective of the society it serves – diverse in composition, and inclusive of all groups
  • ensuring that appointment and promotion of employees is fair and that no group of New Zealanders is discriminated against or subjected to barriers in employment.

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