Towards a more joined-up public service

24 January 2020

The Public Service Legislation Bill aims to encourage a public service culture which is underpinned by a common purpose and values. The Bill supports a public service that is capable of organising cohesively around specific priorities, and fosters a strong Crown-Māori relationship. 

We look at the proposed changes.

Why change?

The last significant reform of the public service was the State Sector Act of 1988. That Act, also the work of a Labour Government, distinguished between departments which function under the lawful instruction of Ministers and Crown entities which operate on an arms-length basis.

The 1988 Act set the stage for the corporatisation (and, later, the privatisation) of State-Owned Enterprises and took a contractual approach in the core public service. The Act established the departmental chief executive as the employer and put chief executives on five year contracts.

This approach led to clearer accountability and autonomy. But it also made the public service less internally permeable and less able to respond to issues that traverse agency boundaries – like climate change, mental health and family violence.

Various efforts have been made over the years to break down these barriers – Key and Strategic Result Areas in the late 1990s; the Managing for Outcomes programme in the early 2000s; and the Better Public Service Results initiative in 2012. But they all met with mixed success.

The Public Service Legislation Bill will apply to departments. Some provisions (e.g. related to minimum standards of integrity) also apply to Crown entities and Crown companies. The Bill complements the Public Finance (Wellbeing) Amendment Bill.

A more flexible public service

The Bill provides for two new organisational forms:

  • interdepartmental executive boards, consisting of chief executives working toward a common outcome. They will be individually and collectively responsible for the board’s work, and
  • interdepartmental ventures, which will allow resources to be brought together into a single entity.

The interdepartmental executive boards are designed to align policy, planning and budgeting activities across two or more departments. The aim is to support initiatives across those departments (including priority work in a particular subject matter area).

The interdepartmental ventures focus on delivering services and carrying out regulatory functions that relate to two or more departments. The ventures will be designed to assist in developing and implementing operational policy relating to those services and functions.

The Bill also creates scope for joint operational arrangements – a formal structure for public service agencies to develop cooperative and collaborative working models.

A forerunner to these new ways of working is the joint venture focussed on the elimination of family violence in New Zealand. This joint venture, led by chief executives, was established in 2018 and currently works across 10 government agencies.

Restatement of constitutional purpose

The Bill reaffirms the public service’s purpose of supporting constitutional and democratic government and lays out a set of public service principles. Department chief executives must uphold these principles, as must the boards of “Crown agents”. This responsibility will be a new collective duty of the Crown agent board under the Crown Entities Act 2004.

The principles cover political neutrality, free and frank advice, merit-based appointments, open government and stewardship. These are not new ideas. They just weren’t set out in the State Sector Act.

The Crown-Māori relationship

The Bill outlines the role of the public service in supporting the Crown in its relationships with Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi (te Tiriti o Waitangi). Under the Bill a core function among public service leaders is to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives. They must also be mindful of these matters in the employment area.

A more attractive place to work

The Bill also provides for the promotion of diversity and inclusiveness, and reaffirms the rights and freedoms of public service employees. This move is strongly supported by the Public Service Association (PSA). The PSA has long argued that the principle of a politically neutral public service does not mean that public servants cannot be politically active.

Submissions on the Bill close on 31 January 2020.

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