Benchmarking studies consistently rate our public service among the most effective in the world. How is that so? Jem Traylen investigates.
“As much as some of us like to moan and groan, we have a public service that seems to shape up reasonably well on paper,” says Chris Eichbaum, a former Beehive staffer and long-time academic observer of government.
An Oxford benchmarking study even ranks our public service as the second most effective overall against its counterparts.
Eichbaum attributes its effectiveness to “good Westminster bones: the constitutional principles our public servants inherited from the UK.
These include political neutrality (willingness to serve whatever government is elected), employment based on merit rather than political connections, and providing ministers with free and frank advice.
Eichbaum says the public service will only ever be as healthy as the political actors it interacts with – particularly the ministers and their “Praetorian guard” of advisers who work in the Beehive.
Sometimes the wheels do fall off, such as when the SIS failed to act with due political neutrality in responding to an OIA request by the notorious blogger Cameron Slater.
Or the Madeleine Setchell affair when not one but two chief executives consulted ministers over her employment.
Eichbaum believes there is a much better understanding today of the public service’s constitutional role and describes the “ship of state” as balanced and cruising along with people aware of the icebergs floating around them.
Many, however, will ask: “How could NZ’s public service possibly be among the best in the world?”
For everyone who has had a passport issued in double quick time, there’s another who has struggled to make the RealMe government ID web portal work.
For every amazing experience of acute care in a public hospital, there is a horror story of a bureaucratic runaround.
Even with the covid response – an extraordinary example of the power of the state to mobilise resources swiftly to protect New Zealanders – the questions mount daily about the extent of forward planning, vaccination delivery, covid testing procurement and regulatory over-reach.
Public Services Commissioner Peter Hughes is happy to accept the academic accolades.
“All journalists know that facts are stubborn things. It’s a fact that New Zealand’s public service is one of the best in the world,” said our most senior public official when admonishing a journalist earlier this year.
The key evidence the commissioner can cite among many benchmarking sources is the 2019 International Civil Service Effectiveness (Incise) Index, developed by Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government, with funding from the UK Cabinet Office.
Incise rates NZ’s public service second in a field of 38 mainly OECD countries – behind the UK, and ahead of Canada, Finland and Australia in the top five.
But our public service shouldn't rest on its laurels, said Rodney Scott, a chief advisor at the Public Service Commission, who spoke to BusinessDesk wearing his other hat as associate professor at the University of New South Wales.
The surveys only tell us what happens on average, and there are many for whom public services aren’t working well.
“On most international measures of most things, we score particularly highly," and our public sector delivers services at a significantly lower cost per head of population.
“But within each of those strengths, there are populations, there are groups, there are individuals that aren’t well served, that aren’t representative of that average.”
Scott also sounds a note of caution about confirmation bias. We shouldn't just accept the indicators that say we’re doing well and attribute areas of poor performance to some kind of measurement flaw.
Such flaws do exist. Comparing public sectors is inherently difficult.
Even countries that superficially look like they’re arranged in similar ways, such as the “Westminster” governments modelled on the UK, are each configured quite differently.
The Incise authors deliberately chose indicators for which the UK government had high-quality data, and which were relevant to its own particular concerns – eg, there’s no rating for relations with indigenous populations.
On that basis, is it a total surprise Incise found UK’s Whitehall to be the best in the world with its Antipodean mini-me, the NZ public service, running a close second?
Here's a closer look at some of the highlights and lowlights of NZ’s Incise rankings.
Integrity – ranked 1st, but…
Our top rating comes as no surprise, given NZ’s consistently high ratings in Transparency International’s index of perceptions of corruption in the public sector.
Michael Macaulay teaches ethics and integrity to current and future public servants at Victoria University's School of Government.
He believes the NZ public service’s reputation for high trust and high integrity is well deserved.
We have almost zero levels of bribery and corruption – but Macaulay is less sanguine about other aspects of public service culture.
“Is there a lot of misconduct? Yes.
“Has bullying been endemic in the public sector for decades? Yes.
“Do people do anything about it? No.”
Macaulay said the government had a prime opportunity to address the issue with the whistleblowing legislation currently before Parliament, but made a conscious choice to exclude bullying from its scope.
Procurement – another 1st, more buts
About a third of the government’s budget ($51.5 billion) is spent through procurement, making our public service one of the most outsourced in the world.
But this is an indicator where Incise could not find good quality data on NZ, so some of our scores were “imputed” – a bit like an aegrotat grade for a student who misses an exam.
Incise did find that NZ ticks all the boxes on best practices – including the role of our central purchasing body (MBIE), the use of e-procurement methods and policies to support the inclusion of small and medium enterprises.
But this only measures policies as they exist on paper, not how they work in practice.
Much less flattering are the results from the government’s own survey of tender participants.
Only 33% gave a positive rating for the overall quality of government procurement, with a worrying 44% of the ICT sector rating it negatively.
Capabilities – 1st, deserved but
This is probably the most robustly assessed indicator in the Incise index, using data from a universally administered scientific survey.
NZ rates as the second most tertiary-educated public service and scores first or well above average on several of the other capability measures.
Yet NZ did not rate well on the proportions of our public workforce scoring high levels of numeracy (22nd) and literacy (27th).
In other words, NZ does very well when comparing our average public servant with their counterparts, but we don’t have as many of the best and brightest signing up for a public service career as they do elsewhere.
Fiscal and financial management – 4th, but why not 1st?
Is it a surprise that NZ isn’t ranked higher than fourth on fiscal prowess, given our Treasury’s reputation as being the All Blacks of public finance?
Indeed, for the openness of the budget process, NZ does take the laurel for best in the world.
However, on the use of performance information in the budget process, we come in at an eyebrow-raising 28th.
Inclusiveness – 17th but improving
This indicator relies on a 2015 expert panel’s assessment of how well ethnic and religious minorities and women are represented in the public service workforce.
A more recent OECD study ranks NZ second – although a closer look shows NZ putting more effort into the inclusion of women, Māori, ethnic minorities and migrants than for disabled people, LGBTI or people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Digital services – 18th but “fit for purpose”
Karl Lofgren, who teaches digital government at the School of Government, says NZ is quite innovative.
“Not because we have lots of innovation labs or policy labs, but out of necessity, because it is such a starved public service, you need to be innovative.”
He is surprised at NZ being ranked 18th, as he believes we perform very well on digital government services.
“The services they are providing are not very advanced, but they are fit for purpose.”
By contrast, other countries may seem more advanced, but their digital systems can be overly complex and “very, very, clunky. If something goes wrong it goes terribly wrong.”
Tax administration – 19th but still above average
This is NZ’s lowest ranking in the Oxford index, and none of the underlying measures are especially flattering – eg a woeful 32nd on Inland Revenue’s costs per dollar collected and 33rd for the proportion filing their GST returns electronically.
However, most of this data came from a 2015 OECD survey. We will have to wait to see whether the promised efficiencies from IRD’s new $1.7billion computer system upgrade will improve this rating.
It all comes back to leadership
What does concern Lofgren is what he sees as the chronic shortage of good leaders in our public service.
“We have massive problems with leaders who are incapable of doing their jobs, at the same time as we somehow constantly celebrate leadership as the most important thing in the sector.”
He attributes much of the reports of bullying in the public service that he and his colleagues hear nearly every day to poor leadership.
He accepts that as a training establishment, the university has some responsibility for this, but it can’t be expected to shoulder the entire burden.
He said the PSC is trying to address this through its Leadership Development Centre, but too few people are going through it.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any good leaders in the NZ public service.
Eichbaum regards Ashley Bloomfield as outstanding – not just a good leader of his organisation, but one who has become a public leader as well.
“We still have space in our system, when it’s working really well, to allow for leadership of a public service department like the Ministry of Health to be anything but grey, anonymous and private.”
He decries the pop-culture image of the sneaky or lazy bureaucrat created by Yes Minister and our own Gliding On TV series, and hopes a “Bloomfield effect” will inspire 11- or 12-year-olds to choose a public service career.
Eichbaum admits he has an Ashley Bloomfield T-shirt. Why?
“Because I’m proud to actually say publicly, I think we are blessed to have such a good public servant.”
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