The good news you didn’t hear

April 21, 2010 by

They say that no news is good news, but last week we saw an example of good news being no news.

The latest ‘Kiwis Count’ survey was released with little fanfare and even less media attention. That’s a pity because the survey showed, yet again, that New Zealand has world class public services, that New Zealanders trust public servants and that their direct experience of public services is a positive one.

The survey shows lots of reasons to be proud of our public services:

  • The level of trust in public services has gone up since the first survey in 2007. The main reason for this is the public’s confidence that public servants do a good job.
  • The most important single reason why New Zealanders value public services is that the services met their expectations. Performance of staff were the next two reasons – competence and keeping their promises.
  • Local government services rate highly and public libraries get the highest rating.

The NZ survey is based on a Canadian model that has been operating for a number of years. The Canadians have used the survey to identify where their public services need to improve. NZ started this survey in 2007 and the initial results showed NZ’s public services at the same level as the Canadians had reached. So we are starting from a high point and it’s to the credit of public servants in central and local government that they have improved on an already good result in the past two years.

The survey showed that New Zealanders have high expectations of public services – higher than they do for privately provided services. It’s great to know that public servants are up to the challenge of meeting those expectations and that they do so day in and day out.

I hope all cabinet ministers read the survey and take on board the high level of value New Zealanders place on their public services. They are too important to lose.

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Whanau Ora report short on detail

April 12, 2010 by

The big news last week was the Whanau Ora announcement. Alas, the Taskforce’s paper leaves most of us none the wiser, so bereft of detail is it. The idea of better co-ordinating social service delivery to families in need is clearly a good idea, albeit not a new one. Various attempts to do better, like Strengthening Families, have not found the solution. It’s not clear, though, that Whanau Ora is it either.

The attention has all been on service delivery, but the real aim of Whanau Ora is surely more to do with Maori whanau self-management and autonomy. Certainly that has been Tariana Turia’s overwhelming policy objective ever since she entered Parliament. Quite how that will work alongside various agencies with either a statutory role (like Child Youth and Family, which are required by law to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect) or a highly specialist role (like Special Education) remains a challenge for all concerned. At least the bad idea of setting up a separate trust to handle the money has been quashed. Lower accountability plus higher cost and more bureaucracy – a bad idea and not surprising to see the government crush that notion at the outset.

One big area of challenge for the Whanau Ora Governance Group will be around workforce and provider skills. The report says that the private providers that will be funded under Whanau Ora will need to demonstrate a high level of expertise in whanau interventions to succeed. That’s true. So why just one sentence – the very last in the report – referring to workforce development and provider capability and capacity?

Our concern is that contracting private providers to provide social services might be used as way of cutting costs by reducing workers’ pay and conditions. Poor pay and conditions leads to poor service delivery and Whanau Ora will not succeed if the government allows this to happen.

Merger mania

March 29, 2010 by

It’s been a busy few weeks in the public sector. The long-rumoured mergers finally got announced. The National Library and Archives New Zealand will move into the Department of Internal Affairs( DIA). The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MORST) and the Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology (FORST) will merge. The Food Safety Authority goes back to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), a mere three years after the government decided it was essential it be a standalone agency. No wonder public servants are cynical about the constant shifts of organisations.

The most difficult set of mergers to understand is the DIA grouping. The Cabinet paper is woefully short of argument. Some vague talk of digitalisation (which both National Library and Archives have been addressing strongly in recent years) and even more vague talk about “future proofing” doesn’t make for a coherent reason to take the axe to two agencies which the paper itself refers to as “well regarded and successful institutions”. Notable was the statement that the National Librarian did not agree with the merger with DIA. Presumably her disagreement was considerable, since it is noted in the Cabinet paper.

Most noticeably absent is any analysis of what this will mean for DIA. It’s currently an agency of about 1600 staff and will grow by over 500 when the mergers happen. Presumably the logic of amalgamation is to obtain structural efficiencies – merge the corporate office functions, HR, finance, policy, planning, communications and the like – otherwise why bother? So is the next stage a major restructure within DIA? The paper is silent on that but I bet DIA staff are wondering what it all means for them.

What we do know is that this set of mergers is taste of things to come. The government has finally acknowledged that further mergers are on the way. John Key’s promise to the PSA, pre-election, that he would not be overseeing a restructure of the public sector is ringing very hollow

Lessons from Obama’s healthcare reforms

March 24, 2010 by

Obama’s victory on health care reform may have fallen short of expectations, but it remains a triumph for ordinary Americans who have been dogged by a health system more concerned with profit than with service.

The strange thing, from a New Zealand perspective, is why so many Americans opposed the reforms. It was obvious that the health system was not only hugely expensive and inefficient but also left an estimated 47 million Americans without any health care.

It seems many Americans were confused about the issues. That confusion was deliberately cultivated by powerful lobby groups for the private companies who had a huge financial interest in the privatisation of public service delivery. Opponents slated what they called “socialised medicine” and claimed universal health care would violate states’ rights.

There are lessons here for New Zealand. Organisations will spend up large to influence political debate and public opinion in their favour, especially when there are large potential profits to be made. In New Zealand the public sector is frequently denigrated as “bloated” and “inefficient”. Evidence is never provided to back up these claims,
but if you say it often enough the public will start to believe it. The aim quite clearly is to pave the way for the privatisation of our public services such as health and ACC.

We need real debate on our public services not attempts to sow confusion by those with a strong vested interest in their demise.

Public service is there when you need it

March 1, 2010 by

The weekend’s events in Chile and their impact in New Zealand showed us some important things about the nature of public service.

In an emergency, we can rely on our public broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, to keep us informed. Unlike other broadcasters, Radio New Zealand set aside its normal programming to make sure that we all had the information we needed to keep safe. That’s what the public sector ethos is about. If you rely on commercial broadcasters for your information, bad luck. Mustn’t get in the way of those advertising breaks.

Without fuss, public servants turned out over the weekend to staff the emergency services. There were some tough calls to make and no doubt there will now be voices raised saying the Ministry of Civil Defence over-reacted. That’s also what the public sector ethos is about – acting to preserve public safety and keeping the public interest always in mind. And soaking up the criticism of those who are wise in hindsight.

Some early comment on the devastation in Chile indicates that the quality of Chilean buildings and the rigour of the building code there have helped save many lives. We should take heed of that. When Rodney Hide, in the name of deregulation, tries to tinker with the standards of our buildings and building inspections, let’s not forget about public safety in our earthquake-prone country.

Keeping up appearances

February 19, 2010 by

Anyone watching the charade by Parliament’s front door security, as featured on the TV3 News, would have been amazed by the lack of common sense on display. The decision to hide a couple of security staff in a windowless room so that nobody would think staff  were standing around doing nothing was a classic case of form over substance.

This innovation has made Parliament less safe, less secure and less convenient, not to mention its likely demoralising effect on the security staff themselves. Nobody wants to spend their working day skulking in a backroom.   And not a cent will be saved. No wonder nobody wanted to own up on camera as to who actually made this decision.

In itself it’s a relatively minor matter, but for many in the public service, this type of change is becoming only too familiar.  More often than not, the emphasis seems to be is on the appearance of greater efficiency when in reality no real improvement takes place.

In its crusade for maximum efficiency, the Government is intent on squeezing public services – and it wants it done yesterday. The result is that changes are rushed and ill-conceived, demoralising for the staff concerned  and having no positive lasting impact.  Security staff at Parliament were not asked for their opinion or input. Instead an unpopular and unworkable decision was imposed on them that they have to live with.

We should all take heed of the recent study by researchers at Waikato University, reported in the Dominion Post, that warned restructuring in the health sector can be bad for productivity because it is distracting for organisations and those who work in them.

Parliament’s security travesty could be a metaphor for much of the wider changes taking place in the state sector where appearances are more important than substance.

Listening to what you don’t want to hear

February 18, 2010 by

“Public sector professionalism is important to the National Government.  The professionalism we value is the public service telling the Government what it doesn’t want hear. Ministers may well disagree with the advice they receive, but open and respectful debate is the best way to make progress.”  Fine words from Bill English back in September 2009, speaking to a packed audience of public servants at the Institute of Public Administration.

The reality is turning out to be somewhat different.

Vernon Small’s story in the Dom Post says that the Ministry of Justice has been blocked from giving policy advice to the select committee considering the ‘three strikes’ law.

So much for “free and frank advice”.  Contrary to Bill English’s rhetoric, it appears we have got a government that doesn’t want to hear anything that doesn’t fit with its own ideas.  I presume  the Ministry of Justice has research and policy findings that cast doubt on the effectiveness of  a  three strikes law.  Important information to hear, you’d think, if you were planning to introduce a piece of legislation.

It’s a shameful decision on the part of National and Act to gag the public servants who have important information that should be listened to.  The Government, of course,  doesn’t have to follow that advice – they are the ones elected to make the law, not officials – but good law needs to be based on good information and a rational assessment of the implications.

It’s a weak government that can’t cope with contrary views.  And a bad move on Simon Power’s part to meekly stand aside and let the police lead the policy work on this law.  That’s not their job and he must know that.  If he doesn’t support this law, then he should show some leadership.

Hands off ACC !

February 16, 2010 by


As the march and rally for ACC in Wellington showed today, there is widespread opposition to the Government’s plan to cut services and raise levies.

As often happens, it’s  the less well off, who are hurt the most. For example, home support workers, the lowest paid of all ACC funded workers, have had their travel allowance cut, reducing their daily income by 19%. Workers who are employed in potentially hazardous workplaces will have reduced entitlements for work-related diseases. The changes will make it harder for people who have hearing loss caused by work to get access to hearing aids. Part-time, casual and seasonal workers will get reduced income compensation.

The old argument “there is no alternative” is trotted out to justify these cuts to entitlement. The Government’s claim that ACC is in financial trouble has no substance. The accident compensation scheme had a $1.1 billion operating surplus in 2009 and over $10 billion in reserves! A “crisis” has been manufactured by the Government demand that ACC should be fully funded by 2019.  In other words, it’s required to have money in the coffers now to cover possible claims for the next decade.

As Tim Hazledine, Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland, pointed out last year in the NZ Herald, this is a bit like asking parents to pay upfront to meet the future obligations to their children. Since that sum would be several hundred thousand dollars, most parents could be deemed to be “broke; busted; bankrupt”.

The hidden agenda here is that fully funding ACC will put it on the same financial footing as insurance companies so they can cash in when accident compensation is opened up to competition.

Currently ACC provides cheaper and better accident compensation than just about anywhere in the world. In Australia, for example, workers pay an average of $1.96 in every $100 of their pay towards accident their worker compensation schemes. In New Zealand workers pay 94 cents per $100.

It’s no wonder so different groups in the community are opposed to the Government’s plan for ACC. The message was loud and clear today : “Hands Off!”.

Big questions about Whanau Ora

February 15, 2010 by

Setting up Whanau Ora is testing the relationship between National and the Maori Party.  The Maori Party, and especially Tariana Turia, have been absolutely consistent in promoting this as an initiative for Maori from the outset, so John Key has been slow off the mark in suggesting it is actually for all.  Perhaps he should take a look at Strengthening Families, which has been working this very model for some years, albeit within government agencies, not via a separate funding arm.

There are some other big questions about Whanau Ora:

  • Why establish a new organisation to allocate funding when that is already the role of the Ministry of Social Development?
  • Why will the rules on accountability for funding be different for Whanau Ora contracts than for all other social service providers?
  • Is finding going to be taken away from Child, Youth and family to fund Whanau Ora?
  • What assessment has been made of the impact on government agencies which will still need to provide services for the most serious needs – child abuse, child and youth offending, serious mental health disorders, learning difficulties.  Will these services for serious needs be cut?

Given the likely cost of the programme, the challenges for funding accountability and the possibility of duplicating systems and services, it’s essential there is informed and open debate.  Releasing the taskforce report would be a start.

State servants are not victims

February 4, 2010 by

The Maryanne Thompson saga is finally drawing to a close with her guilty plea over falsifying qualifications.  The oddest thing about the court case yesterday was the State Services Commissioner presenting a Victim Impact Statement.  Who’s the victim here?  Apparently the State services as a whole and all State servants.  I don’t think  so.

I don’t see State servants being or acting as victims.  They haven’t and don’t need to take on board the responsibility for one individual’s wrong-doing.  In any walk of life, there will always be individuals who flout the rules, take advantage of trust, or are plain bad.  When someone in the business world breaks the law (not an infrequent occurrence), no one suggests the whole system of private enterprise has been victimised by this.

Iain Rennie was right to say that there is an impact on the general perception of trustworthiness of State services.  But Len Cook, the new head of the Institute of Public Administration, hit the nail right on the head when he said the real issue was how the system deals with individual cases of wrongdoing or corruption.

Trust and trustworthiness are vital ingredients of our system of government and public administration.  One falsified cv doesn’t undermine that, stupid (and unnecessary) as the action was.  But please, Iain Rennie, let’s not go down the path of claiming collective victimhood.