From 1840 to 1860

When William Hobson arrived in 1840 to establish a colonial government in New Zealand among the whalers, sealers, traders, soldiers of fortune and outlaws, and the chieftains and their hapu and iwi, he brought with him a Colonial Secretary, and a Colonial Treasurer-Collector of Customs.  Soon after he added an Attorney-General and a Police Magistrate.  

These four men were the beginnings of New Zealand’s Public Service.

Within the year the civil service had grown to 39 officers - in the Governor’s office, the Colonial Secretary’s office, the Attorney-General’s office, the Department of Customs, the Protectorate of Aborigines, the Post Office, the Treasury, the Public Works Department, and half a dozen other departments. All were based in Auckland.  

The departments that grew up over the next few decades operated under the direct control of their Ministers, in arrangements that were practical in pioneering times.  Ministers approved appointments, determined pay and conditions, and oversaw administration and financial management, with varying degrees of diligence.

The ‘frontier’ Public Service

Understandably, Ministers were inclined to see that the people appointed were sympathetic to their own political outlook and priorities – and inevitably, in a small population, these were sometimes friends or acquaintances.  The Public Service was run on somewhat ad hoc ‘frontier’ lines, and seems not to have been much different from its parent institution, the British civil service.  In their report on the British civil service Sir Stafford North and Sir Charles Trevelyan described a bureaucracy that was, in the 1850s, rife with patronage, fragmented and inefficient.  They proposed reforms to create a professional career service, with entry by competitive examination, merit promotion, and promotion between departments, among other things.

In New Zealand Edward Stafford began to advocate public service reform at about the same time.  A bill introduced by him as Premier and enacted in 1858 disqualified public servants from election to the House, and another passed later the same year provided for public service pensions.

From 1860 to 1912

During his second term as Premier, in the 1860s, Stafford introduced further legislation that took things another step beyond arbitrary personnel management by Ministers, with rules for matters such as classification, promotion, salaries and allowances, annual increments, discipline and retirement.

However, the good intentions of that legislation were generally frustrated in implementation.

The Vogel Ministry was disposed to strengthen rather than constrain ministerial discretion in respect to Public Service staffing and control.  Lacking proper control and leadership, the Service grew rapidly to about 11,000.  

When the Government faced serious economic difficulties in the 1880s it looked for savings, short and long term, in the Public Service.  It saw a solution in abandoning ‘all ideas and traditions… as to the Government being required to treat its employees on any different principles from those which would regulate a well conducted establishment of any large employer’.  Businessman Ministers turned to familiar business practices to justify retrenchment and a return to ad hoc control of staffing in departments.

Endeavours to put personnel management on a systematic and politically neutral basis by those who saw the Public Service as an important constitutional institution rather than as a mere vassal of the Ministers of the day, were consistently thwarted through until 1912.  

‘A refuge for the ineffectual and indolent’?

Appointments of ‘temporary employees’, ‘extra clerks’ and ‘skilled persons’ enabled Ministers to skirt the formal entry and promotion systems.  By the end of the century ‘temporary clerks’ comprised more than 20% of the Public Service.  As Premier, Richard Seddon dispensed ‘temporary’ appointments in the Public Service to grateful constituents throughout the length and breadth of the country.

His successor Ward ended these excesses but shied away from proposals that would take ‘the power of control of the Public Service’ away from ‘the people’ (through their elected representatives) – something that would risk, in his view, development of ‘an uncontrollable autocracy’.  

‘The power of control’ sank lower and lower into a mire of detail: public servants could not give music lessons in their own time without their Minister’s written approval, while the names of those late to work each week, and their excuses, were put before departmental Ministers on Monday mornings.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the New Zealand Public Service was widely held to be inefficient and wasteful, and grossly overstocked with beneficiaries of political patronage. Such criticisms were no doubt unfair to many upright and hard-working officials.

The line between what the Public Service did to support Ministers in the exercise of their administrative duties, and what it did to support Ministers’ personal and party political interests was blurred.  

The Hunt Commission

Following the 1911 general election the Mackenzie administration launched what was to become known as the Hunt Commission on the civil service.  In the Reform Government that followed, Alexander Herdman, the most persistent advocate of Public Service reform over the preceding ten years, took over responsibility for the Royal Commission with considerable enthusiasm.  The tide of public opinion was by then running strongly against political patronage.

Objections to political patronage seem to have been in three main areas:

Departments’ inefficiency and lack of responsiveness resulting from the dual burdens of excessive petty rules and regulations, and large numbers of incompetent ‘back door’ employees; and also from disunity, and lack of clarity as to performance expectations and lines of accountability (were staff responsible to the Minister or to the head of the department?);

Excessive financial burdens on the State, arising from inflated wage bills and low returns of value for money; and

Straight out corruption, in the forms of favouritism of particular groups, communities and individuals, and favours for services.

The Public Service Act 1912

The Hunt Commission in due course recommended, as ‘the most important matter of all’, establishment of a Board of Management under Cabinet, to have ‘absolute and undisputed power’ in ‘all matters relating to the control and management of the Service - … appointments, salaries, promotion, suspensions, dismissals, and indeed everything affecting officers – ‘  It suggested the Board’s first duties should include blocking all ‘back doors’ of entrance to the Public Service, and arranging for all promotions be made from within the Service.

The outcome was the Public Service Act 1912 – based on Herdman’s Bill already before the house – which set up a non-political and unified career Public Service; non-political through powers of appointment, promotion and dismissal being entrusted to an independent body – the Public Service Commissioner.

There seems little doubt that the Public Service Act was seen at the time as a welcome shakeup of the bureaucracy.  On 19 September 1912 the Auckland Weekly News carried a cartoon showing the new Premier, Massey, leaning through the window of the ‘Political Nominee Department’ to drop a sword marked ‘Civil Service Reform’ on the head of a foppish clerk lounging at his cobwebbed desk, above the caption: ‘The sword of Damocles – modern version’.


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