The story goes something like this: when the prime
minister called for a volunteer to bring more than a semblance
of order to the chaos flowing from the introduction of a new
payroll system for the country's schools, Steven Joyce looked
around the room, saw who was there and realised it was John
Key's way of telling him to put up his hand for the job.
The story may be apocryphal. Bill English is also understood
to have put his hand up. But he agreed Mr Joyce was the
obvious candidate for a task which must be completed as
quickly as possible for pressing political reasons yet which
cannot be rushed because of its hideous complexity.
Mr Fix-It; the Minder; the minister for everything - you can
choose whichever hackneyed label you wish. But behind the
cliches lies one incontrovertible fact: all prime ministers
need someone like Mr Joyce on hand, especially given that the
range, scale and intractability of problems all seem to
intensify as a government ages.
Such troubleshooters are the most trusted of lieutenants.
They are the safe pair of hands in which a prime minister can
place absolute confidence that the job will be done while
everyone else is washing their hands of it.
They are jacks of most political trades and masters of the
remainder. They can absorb the detail without losing the big
Crucially, they enjoy a level of political seniority which
allows them to bang heads together (metaphorically speaking)
to make things happen.
Their reward is invisible, yet palpable - ever-increasing
influence as the power behind the throne.
Jim Bolger had Bill Birch, someone whose political acumen,
understanding of the bureaucracy and relentless work ethic
meant he could sort out most foul-ups thrown in his
Helen Clark had Michael Cullen, whose considerable intellect
was tapped to do the almost-impossible - come up with a
lasting solution to the foreshore and seabed imbroglio.
Mr Joyce has likewise been handed the hospital pass from
hell. The problem had become bigger than National had earlier
anticipated. Junior minister Craig Foss was struggling to
stem the never-ending flow of errors in the payroll.
You only have to read the catalogue of woes in the Ministry
of Education briefing paper written for Mr Joyce to see how
daunting the challenge is.
The document gets to the nub of the problem - that Novopay
was designed with the assumption that 90% of school
administrators would be utilising it online, not the little
over 70% in actuality.
Worse, some of aspects of the payroll - such as submitting
timesheets for part-time teachers - could not be done online.
The result was schools submitted pay forms by email. Talent2,
the Australian-based company which owns Novopay, had not
devoted enough staffing to cope with this deluge. Exiting
staff were not trained to answer the schools' queries.
The ministry said Talent2's performance had been improving,
but this was so slow it was virtually invisible to schools,
which had largely lost confidence in the new system.
If nothing was done, it would take 18 to 24 months before the
system was delivering at the level expected of it let alone
generating the extra benefits promised of it.
Not surprisingly, Mr Joyce has recoiled in horror at such a
timetable. He certainly warned that there was no quick fix.
But that was much to avoid unduly raising expectations among
teachers and parents that his appointment would mean rapid
progress in sorting out the mess. Mr Joyce would rather adopt
the standard approach that it is better to underpromise and
At the same time, he cannot be sanguine about time. The
pressure is on him to institute measures which mean a
substantial reduction in errors and which have the double
plus of taking the pressure off waiting times for teachers
seeking answers from Novopay's and the ministry's call
Mr Joyce's inclination is to stick with Novopay simply
because things are so far down the track that it would be
even more disruptive to switch to a back-up provider.
But he has to be absolutely sure Novopay can be fixed. That
is the priority. He has accordingly instituted a technical
audit to find out whether Novopay can be ''stabilised'' or
whether the project will have to be ditched. That is expected
to take three to four weeks.
Until then, he will not foreclose on any options, such as
discussing contingency plans with Datacom, the previous
Among a host of other initiatives designed to be inclusive of
sector groups, Mr Joyce has instituted a separate ministerial
inquiry, which will assess all aspects of the Novopay project
from go to woe.
That will take in the at-times fractious dialogue between the
ministry and Talent2, which saw the project's ''go live''
date twice delayed and the ministry threatening breach of
contract. Given problems were apparent at least three years
ago, one of the more delicate questions will be how much
ministers knew and how much the ministry kept them in the
One plus for Mr Joyce and National is that Labour is
implicated in this sorry saga by virtue of having signed the
contract with Talent2 back in 2008.
But that does not make Mr Joyce's job any the easier. The
ministry is already pouring additional funding into the
project to try to get it back on the rails. There will likely
have to be more.
Mr Joyce hardly needs telling that there is not a lot of
political upside in New Zealand taxpayers having to bail out
an Australian enterprise which has displayed little remorse
for its failure to deliver on its contract or the consequent
disruption that has caused to many teachers' lives.
But then there is not a lot of upside for Mr Joyce in all of
this. Success is simply expected of him; failure will be a
major blight on any higher ambitions. So far it has been
textbook stuff from the fourth-ranked minister in the
Cabinet. In short, so far so good. But there is still a long
way to go before he and National can finally breathe easier
on this one.
- John Armstrong is the political correspondent for
The New Zealand Herald.