As the Head of State Services it is vital that the Commissioner communicates effectively with both Chief Executives and Ministers. This communication is particularly important to assist with managing risk, which is an inevitable feature of reform. SSC has an important role supporting Ministers and Chief Executives to develop and strengthen the key system partnerships between them that are required for state sector reform.
This communication is particularly important to assist with sector and system issues. In order to influence the pace of change and drive delivery of cross-agency results there must also be cross-portfolio alignment and leadership. As Head of the State Services, it is important that the Commissioner is able to identify difficulties and communicate effectively with Ministers and Chief Executives as necessary to deal with them. However he cannot do this single-handedly and the members of State Sector Reform Leadership Group in particular can assist.
There are some initiatives which have been particularly successful in facilitating communication with Chief Executives. The bi-annual Chief Executives' retreat at Brackenridge, has been a great success. Chief Executives value it and look forward to the opportunity to deal with the challenging state sector issues in a collegial environment. It has improved communication and understanding between Chief Executives and has assisted in achieving commitments to system-wide changes such as the agreement of all Chief Executives to complete consistent talent management mapping in their Agencies by mid-2015.
Despite these improvements in communication, some dissatisfaction remains. SSC is not yet getting full recognition in terms of reputation despite the acknowledged progress that it has made. I have found it difficult to identify a particular cause as many of the positive changes identified above are recognised and valued. Some of the difficulties are created by the perception that SSC is not as cohesive or unified as it should be. Some parts of the organisation are still seen as bureaucratic and not sufficiently aware of the needs of their customers.
There are areas where the SSC is recognised as delivering value. Examples frequently referred to are the PIF Review and Continuous Improvement programmes, the introduction of the Career Boards process and the LCDD programme. But these can sometimes be overshadowed by the more bureaucratic feeling of some of its other activities and by a sense that SSC does not ‘understand' the real world in which state servants operate.
The overall impression I gained was that there needs to be much more emphasis on clear communication - both within SSC and also to the State services and to Ministers. This communication needs to be frequent and timely. And it should frequently be either in person or by video link rather than always by email, which can add to the feeling of remoteness. The Commissioner could include his colleagues on the SSRLG to participate in the engagement with Ministers on State sector reform matters, rather than dealing one-on-one with Ministers, where sometimes messages may get lost in translation.
Ministers expect SSC to be expert at and focussed on State sector leadership and development, particularly for Chief Executives. They question whether there is always sufficient priority and urgency given to these functions as it seems to take a long time to achieve results. This suggests that SSC, and the Commissioner in particular, needs to communicate more clearly and effectively with Ministers and Chief Executives.
Support could also be provided to new Ministers in particular through the use of senior advisers such as former senior State servants who could be contracted to Ministers' offices for 6 or 12 months. These advisers could assist Ministers to develop effective connections and understanding of their agencies and the sector and system reform requirements that they must deal with. The role would be akin to that of purchase advisers who were effectively used by Ministers with large operational portfolios in the first term of the current Government.
In his role as Head of the State Services, the Commissioner must communicate with and for all State servants. That is challenging, given the geographical spread and sheer number of individuals involved. But it is valuable to make sure that state servants receive clear messages about system and sector reform; why it is important and what it means for them and for New Zealand. The focus on customer involves a major cultural shift for some and the importance of cross-agency collaboration is also a message that needs to be clearly understood. There are several avenues for this communication, email being the least effective. The Chief Executives in the State Sector Leadership Reform group also have an important role to play but to make an impact it is important that the Commissioner effectively enlists all Chief Executives to deliver these messages and to follow them up with action.