08 July 2015

It is 100 years since the enactment of the Public Service Act 1912. The State Services Commission is celebrating the milestone with this short history of our Public Service.

This historical account was prepared by historian and writer Redmer Yska.


A publication to mark the 100th anniversary

The State Services Commission is celebrating a century of leading a State sector New Zealand is proud of.

This is a souvenir publication. It marks 100 years since the inauguration of Commissioner control in 1913, and showcases the journey to State sector leadership by the State Services Commissioner today.

This book has been written with the help of historian Redmer Yska, and describes political control of Public Service personnel management in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It explains the origins of the Public Service Act 1912, and talks about the impact of successive Governments, Ministers and Public Service Commissioners/Chairmen/State Services Commissioners.

Dame Margaret Bazley, ONZ, DNZM, Hon D.Lit
(former State Services Commissioner – one of four – from 1984 to 1988)

As we celebrate 100 years of an apolitical professional Public Service in New Zealand, public servants can look back with pride on what has been achieved as they meet the challenges ahead.

In 1956 I commenced my nursing career at the then Auckland Mental Hospital, which at that time was part of the Public Service.

Twenty three years later (in 1978) I was appointed to the position of Director of Nursing in the Department of Health Head Office. This was the Chief Nurse position for New Zealand and the most senior position in the Public Service held by a woman.

Taking this position meant leaving hospitals where I had worked in a world dominated by doctors and administrators, only to enter the male bureaucracy of the Wellington Public Service. Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I was not equal because I was a woman. For years I was usually the only woman in a crowd of men, giving rise to many memorable experiences, such as being taken to parliamentary committees and put in the front row so that all could see that the Health Department had a woman in its senior ranks.

In 1984 the Lange Government appointed me as the first, and to this day the only, woman as a State Services Commissioner. The State Services Commission was the employer of all public servants and wage fixing authority for the wider State sector. My role as one of four Commissioners involved responsibility for industrial relations, pay fixing, personnel management, and departments in the social sector.

The State Services Commission led the government’s public sector reforms in the 1980’s, including the establishment of the State Owned Enterprises and the subsequent realignment of the Public Service departments and the implementation of the State Sector Act. The Act established Chief Executives, placed them on a five-year contract and made them accountable to their Minister for delivering outputs to an annual purchase agreement. They became employers of their own staff.

I had responsibility for leading the people aspects of the reforms and was responsible for the management of changes affecting people. We developed policies, set up a redeployment unit, an appointment unit and a social impact unit. We managed the appointments and relocation of thousands of public servants and the impacts of these changes on them, their families and communities.

Equal Employment Opportunities were also on the Government’s agenda. My role in this involved work around the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs; review and adjustment of pay for the occupational classes mainly occupied by women; establishment of eighteen Public Service crèches around the country; changes to policies impeding the advancement of women; establishment of an Equal Employment Unit; and the introduction of policies for the disabled and ethnic minorities in the Public Service.

The State Sector Act required the Public Service to have regard for the aspirations of Māori people and this work was given a highlighted focus.

In 1988 I was appointed Secretary for Transport; the first Chief Executive appointed under the State Sector Act and the first woman to head a large Public Service department.

Since then I have continued to work in the Public Service.

I enjoy working with modern public servants who are these days usually university graduates. I admire their professionalism, their honesty and integrity, and how they appreciate and protect the qualities of a world-leading apolitical service. It is interesting to observe how they adapt their practice to the requirements of the government of the day. I also take a keen interest in the services that they deliver to the people of our country and I am proud to be associated with them.

As a career public servant I observe the way our Public Service has evolved and am impressed by every part of it that I have contact with.


Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman, Minister of State Services

There is no doubt that our Public Service has come a long way since the Commission was first established in 1913. The first Public Service Commissioner (as the position was referred to then) Donald Robertson, was appointed in 1913.

He didn’t work alone in that role – at that time there were also two assistant commissioners. The first Minister of State Services, Keith Holyoake, was not appointed until 1963 and now I am lucky number 13.

Since the early 1900’s huge strides have been made through two world wars; a major depression; floods; earthquakes; successive governments and Ministers, some 16 Commissioners (under various titles, including joint tenure), and the usual hefty work requirements involved in working through major programmes of significant change and reform. A key event during this time included the appointment of New Zealand’s first woman State Services Commissioner in 1984, Dame Margaret Bazley.

While now is a good time to reflect on where we have come over the last 100 years, it is also an opportunity for us to look at what is next and where we are headed.

As the current Minister for State Services, I am excited about being part of the most significant change programme for our State sector in a generation. It is not only about maintaining and improving services during a time when we all have to be particularly mindful of every dollar that we spend. It is also about making sure we are providing a  public sector that is working to make things happen – a time of action – to deliver the things that matter most to New Zealanders and to support the demands of our country in a challenging global environment.

The global financial crisis and the great recession have meant real challenges for economic management and the Public Service. We need to think about and plan how we will provide public services that are both relevant and in line with the needs of a modern public. While, at the same time, getting back to surplus and ensuring our government debt stays low. A difference that has not gone unnoticed by other countries.

Being relevant to New Zealanders is about focusing on the things that matter most to all of us: boosting skills and employment; reducing crime; supporting our vulnerable children and improving the way people interact with government. We are doing this by setting tough targets with clear results that will focus and challenge our public servants. We are already getting traction towards achieving some of the targets that agencies have set for these result areas.

These are complex problems that cut across Ministerial portfolios and agency boundaries. So it requires us working in different ways. We are doing this by providing the advice and tools to support a more modern leadership culture in our Public Service, and of course the change in legislation that will help to manage that.

We are also working with others outside the public sector and outside New Zealand, more and more.

There are a great many opportunities to learn from and contribute to the experience of others – such as the United Kingdom experience in public sector reforms and the innovations that have come out of Christchurch as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes. By working more closely together across agencies, businesses, government, non-government, communities, countries and cultures we are in a better position to share the wealth of skill and expertise that will ensure our public sector delivers innovative services and meaningful results to New Zealanders.

The local and global financial constraints we face now will not be going away any time soon. Making sure we have the kind of Public Service that can not only deliver core requirements in these tough financial times, but develop and transform itself to respond to challenges and deliver better public services, is not only desirable but essential. We are small enough to think differently, challenge ourselves and act in ways that can make a big difference for us all.

Our State Services Commission is playing a critical role in making sure that happens – not as a ‘big brother’ who is forever on your case and giving you a hard time, but more as someone you can look up to for guidance and support. An organisation that is working with others to lead a State sector that not only New Zealanders are proud of, but is admired by others around the world.

This is a timely moment to acknowledge the reputation we enjoy overseas for consistently topping the International Transparency rankings. We are not perfect, but as kiwis we can be very proud about the lack of corruption in our system – something we are keen to preserve.

We are a nation of doers and inventors with a unique perspective on life. It has never been good enough for us to simply follow along and make the best of things. Looking at what we as a nation and a public sector have achieved so far, it is evident that leading the way and forging our own possibilities is what we are about. All of that makes me excited about the opportunities for ‘what is next’.