Field Operations

Most of the research for this study was conducted in Wellington; most of the operations of government are carried out in regional and field offices throughout the country. The State sector reforms have affected these operations by devolving responsibility to line managers, eliminating or curtailing regional offices, separating policy advice from service delivery, and requiring timely feedback on outputs and other indicators of performance. The reforms have given field managers considerable flexibility in spending their office budgets, but it also has made them accountable for what they do.

I urge that attention be given to the organisation and operation of these units. There can be far greater political risk to the government in the actions of field managers than in the policy decisions taken at headquarters. Field workers - especially those in outlying areas - may have a weak understanding of the logic of reform and what is expected of them. It is much easier to explain to them that they now have freedom to spend operating funds than it is to get across the message that they are accountable for what they do. The deregionalisation of departments has lengthened the organisational isolation of some field units, which may not appreciate the risks associated with their actions or know how they are to be accountable for their own performance.

While there may be strong justification for the delayering that has occurred in many departments, devolution of operating responsibility must be accompanied by clear guidance to field managers, robust training efforts to disseminate governmental and departmental policies, and effective oversight to guard against damage to the collective interest because of the ignorance of field workers. It would be appropriate to examine regional and field organisations to ensure that managers understand the logic of accountability.

It is especially important to review the role of operations of regional offices. Many have been eliminated, and staff have been reduced in most of the remaining offices. The functions of regional offices in the reformed State sector is uncertain. These offices do not provide much policy advice, and they generally do not deliver services. Most exist to manage the two-way flow of information between department headquarters and field units. They transmit department guidance to field managers and monitor compliance, and they transmit performance information from the field to headquarters. Some also provide assistance to field units. Delayering is premised on the expectation that these informational flows can be maintained via direct contact between headquarters and field offices.

Advances in information technology definitely facilitate the easy and efficient transmission of information among geographically dispersed units. But this technology may be more useful in those instances where all field units provide standardised services. When, however, the services are not uniform, it may be difficult for headquarters to monitor the performance of field units. In these circumstances, regional offices can play a positive role in assisting field managers.

In the education sector, great reliance has been placed on the capacity of community schools to manage their own operations. There is good reason to believe that some schools cannot do an adequate job on their own and would benefit from assistance provided by re-invigorated regional offices.

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