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What if the NZ Prime Minister means what he says?

Written by Peter McKinlay on March 20th, 2012.      0 comments

Some of the commentariat seem a bit under-whelmed by NZ Prime Minister John Key’s commitment to 10 specific goals as part of his Better Public Services strategy. New Zealand Politics Daily observed “the five year timeframe for achievement means that current Ministers and departmental CEOs are likely to have moved on before any day of reckoning”, suggesting that this was more political window-dressing than a real shift in policy direction.
But let's have a closer look. It's quite possible the Prime Minister means exactly what he said - and if he does, we may be facing one of the most significant shifts in New Zealand's public sector in decades.
First, he is putting Ministers right up front. In a speech to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce announcing the new initiative, he stated:
“I have appointed Ministers to lead each of these 10 results, along with a public service chief executive who is accountable for demonstrating real progress against his or her result.
“Responsible Ministers are expecting to sign off the initial plans to deliver against these results by the end of this month.”
Next, this is not just something out of the political spin room. Behind the Prime Minister's announcement sits the report of the Better Public Services Advisory Board. This was delivered last November but released only on 15 March, suggesting some long hard ministerial consideration before making the public commitment to pick up on what the board recommended.

The failure to link Ministers fully into responsibility and accountability for major policy has been one of the weaknesses of the New Zealand public management system since the late 1990s, when both Treasury and the Office of the Auditor-General tried to get Ministers to accept responsibility for the outcome statements in the government's estimates of expenditure, and failed.

At the moment, it looks as though the Prime Minister is recognising that unless Ministers are actually on the line, he’s not going to get the changes he wants.

And this is more than just targets to look back on in five years time. Both the BPS and the Prime Minister's speech emphasised regular reporting against targets so that progress towards achieving them can be measured.

And there's more still; the whole emphasis is on reshaping the public sector to get away from the present silos in order to build 'whole of sector' teams to deal with a number of the ‘wicked’ issues which have frustrated successive governments. We are looking at a major shift in the way government operates, at the role of Ministers, and how the public service works with the communities it serves.

We may also be looking at a possible policy conflict. The BPS report itself stresses the importance of working with community, and refers specifically to working with community groups. It does not draw on the extensive international work, especially in the UK, on the role of local government as a crucial intermediary in the effective delivery of social services (whether or not local government itself has any formal responsibility). However there is an encouraging reference to local governance boards, often chaired by the Mayor, as an important component of a current multi-departmental initiative in changing the way social services are delivered in small communities. This suggests the BPS Advisory Board has at least some awareness of the importance of the 'soft infrastructure' local government uniquely provides in being able to join up the dots within its communities.

This may be at odds with the Minister of Local Government who wants to constrain local government to its core activities, and does not believe that councils have a role to play in helping improve performance in areas such as educational underachievement or child abuse – though it does look as though his focus is more one that local government should not be a lead player, rather than a dismissal of its very real potential to act as a bridge between central agencies and communities.

It will be fascinating to see how the Minister of Local Government's views play out, and whether they can encompass the potentially dramatic policy shift signalled by the Prime Minister's speech and the report of the Better Public Services Advisory Board.  Will he see this as representing the real new direction for the role of local government in New Zealand?

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