Has service to the public become servility to ministers?

Here's a number to make the new Government’s day: 48% more people are positive than are negative about where the country is now going.

UMR Research asks people whether "things . . .  are heading in the right direction or are . . .  off on the wrong track". Throughout the Key-English time there was a net positive reading, sometimes strongly so.  That positive reading declined gently through to the election. But National could put that down to the possibility of a change of government for the worse. Actually, it seems the change is judged to be for the better.

The November 8-14 reading put the "right direction" at 65% and the "wrong track" at a long-term low of 17%. That suggests that, while National’s niggling in Parliament about fine detail in Labour’s pre-election promises may be therapeutic for its MPs, it will not reverberate outside the hallowed chamber. Likewise ministers’ early slips and trips.

National is posturing as if the Government has a record to be held to account for when ministers have hardly warmed their cabinet seats. Maybe over summer barbecues Bill English and Co will register the change in public mood. Will English (and some others) then still want to hang around? That question will sharpen as the new, mostly younger, ministers begin to unpick bits of the paradigm National operated by. All three coalition partners want a more active government: more "public" action. But, in doing that will they respect the "public service"? Not if Ardern and Co take their cue from Helen Clark’s enforcer, Heather Simpson, who is on a short-term contract setting up systems.

Simpson’s demands of and orders to officials in the Clark era became the stuff of blistering legend. At issue is the ethos of the "public" service. For decades it has been misnamed the "state" service. That implies officials serve only ministers, who are the state executives, not also the public who in a democracy are supposed to be the ultimate masters and mistresses. The public’s interests range wider than ministers’ purview and stretch forward into the future. Part of officials’ job is to keep that wider, longer-term perspective in front of ministers while, of course, carrying out ministers’ lawful instructions.

Senior officials insist this is what they do. But many outside observers — and many officials — worry that serving ministers has,  during the past 15 years, too often morphed into servility. An example: the passing on to ministers in July of Winston Peters’ superannuation details, which raised serious questions about officials’ political impartiality.

One driver of change has been the appointment of political advisers in ministers’ offices. They filter communications to ministers and even presume to tell officials, including chief executives, what to do. Some later become MPs. These interlopers vet what should be departments’, not ministers’, business, including Official Information Act requests. The State Services Commission (SSC) recently issued a "code of conduct" requiring the advisers to be "fair, professional, responsible and trustworthy". Before the code there were no formal rules. But it in effect validates them as people to be paid out of your taxes while looking after the personal political interests of their ministers. Is that in the "public" interest or the "state" interest? Is it the "stewardship" of the public service the SSC talks of?

A test is briefings to incoming ministers (BIMs), supposed to be "wide-ranging" and include "an account of major outstanding policy issues". In 2014 many were redacted on ministers’ orders. Logically, BIMs would be locked up the day before an election and issued the day the new government is formed. That they were not this year was so they could respond to new ministers’ priorities. That could have been done in supplementary briefings.

So are officials now, to quote academic and former ministerial adviser Chris Eichbaum, too "responsive" to ministers’ needs and preferences and too little "responsible" to the wider public interest? Yes, many public servants told Eichbaum and colleague Richard Shaw in a survey. They worry that too often advice is tailored to what ministers are thought to want to hear. Can the SSC turn that round? Or will the new ministers demand and get obsequious obedience?

Old-timers recall a State Service Commissioner who firmly admonished ministers who did not observe the service’s independence and impartiality. This arises against a backdrop of societal change which requires a deep rethink of how public services are organised to respond flexibly and accurately to 2020s realities and the post-baby-boom majority.

The last big rethink 30 years ago set up "silos" which struggle to deal with cross-cutting matters. Oranga Tamariki’s ability to buy services is one break-out attempt. If the public service does not respond or is blocked by ministers from responding and reforming, that positive "right direction" UMR reading might go negative at some point.

- Colin James is a leading social and political commentator.



The number of these politically slanted articles in the paper recently makes me wonder if the ODT is transitioning to Labour Party activism as its core mission. I have no political affiliation and have always enjoyed the independence of the ODT but can see that things are changing.

Oh really? Did you not read the editorial bagging Labour/NZ First, or is that not politically slanted?

It doesn't matter. Opinion and Editorial take positions, some of which you may not like. Tough. Opinion is not 'articles'.