Better Public Services – or just round two of slash and burn?

Today the Government released its vision for public sector reform. Prime Minister John Key has announced major reforms including the establishment of a super-ministry – the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – merging the Ministries of Economic Development, Science and innovation, the Department of Labour, and, somewhat strangely, the Department of Building and Housing.

National’s announcement has been planned to coincide with the public release of the long-awaited report of the Better Public Services Advisory Group, a group which included the ex-head of the Ministry of Social Development, Peter Hughes.

Not all change is bad, of course. In his recent paper in Policy Quarterly, ahead of the release of the BPSAG report, Hughes signalled the kinds of change he believes we badly need to see; among them, an end to silo-isation of government departments so that public servants can provide a more integrated response to people’s needs. No one can argue with that. The public service was blown to smithereens during the 80s and 90s ‘reforms’ and has never really recovered.  Changes to the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act are well overdue.

Sadly though, Hughes’s virtuous public policy agenda is about to run up against the realpolitik of round two of a National government.  There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 2008 election campaign – where, possibly with all sincerity, Key promised a gathering of 200 Public Service Association delegates that  he was not going to cut jobs, just cap them.

Actually what has happened since then is that the cap on public servants has sunk, and sunk again. After that election, National promised to cap public sector job losses at 38,859, but then it let the lid sink further until public sector numbers fell to 36,475. Today, it has adopted that figure as the new ‘cap’ – and the $1 billion savings it’s demanding from departments will see it fall even further. It’s pretty ironic that a government that can’t seem to enforce a sinking lid on pokie machines doesn’t seem to have a problem putting a sinking lid on public servants.

At the time Key also said “a National Government is not going to radically reorganise the public sector… few problems are solved by significant reorganisations… in fact, many more tend to be created.”

Already more than 2,500 jobs have been cut; many regional offices have been closed; public sector workers, and the public, are feeling the pain. Last year the PSA calculated that along with jobs left unfilled, actually over 5,000 jobs have been cut or lost.  District Health Boards are looking to shed medical staff; police are looking to cut staff; Housing New Zealand and MFAT are laying off staff and replacing them with call centres. The jobless rate in Wellington is the highest it’s been in 16 years. The cuts aren’t confined to Wellington either; they’re nationwide and they have a contractionary effect on the wider economy.

This latest announcement isn’t about solid, thoughtful, change to bring about a Better Public Service. It’s about job cuts, and it’s about the government skimming whatever it can from the public sector – getting people to do more for less.  Like all of us, public servants need job security and they need meaningful work. Lack of security, constant change and unmanageable workloads are not a fertile ground for innovation.

We need a strong, responsive ‘results-driven’ public service, but these changes aren’t going to get us there.  The government wants to cut $1 billion from the public service, and ultimately that means contracting out bits and pieces of government departments that used to be done in-house – either to under-funded community organisations, already heaving under the strain, or more likely, to private companies looking to make a quick buck.

Is that what we want? Because that’s what’s about to happen.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Better Public Services – or just round two of slash and burn?

  1. In fact, quite a few ex civil servants will become contractors offering services to their old department – this is a pattern that the government favours I think.

    Some years ago, pressure was put on DOC to lay off regular possum trappers and rangers and force them all onto output-based contracts. For some, this was the end of their jobs; for those who tried to turn themselves into self-employed contractors it was a nightmare of uncertain income, sometimes dangerous work conditions and a perverse incentive not to clean out all the possums in an area.

    I know a few people who have become contractors after being made redundant and, while theoretically you can command more $$ per hour, you are competing for the contracts and there are no guarantees of regular income or the other perquisites of regular employment: sick leave, holiday pay and so on.
    It is part of the privatisation agenda with the added twist of forcing people into situations they are not necessarily going to be trained for or good at.

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  2. Having working in central government as a consultant trying to reduce waste I can say for certain that there where useful changes to reduce inefficient spending that where there for the taking at the end of the Labour government. However, slash ‘n’ burn doesn’t realize real savings, it simply hammers the organisational capability, further drives the inefficiencies and poor decision make underground, and weeds out the proactive, capable and ethical workers who actually formed the backbone of the capability. To increase efficiency you generally need to measure outputs in a meaningful way, then require CEO’s to generate better outputs, with the same budget. Asking them to improve, reallocate and cut all at the same time simply generates a self defense reflex, not a strategy.

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  3. At a superficial level this is posed as simply making budgetary moves necessary to maintain our national credit rating, otherwise as the governments preference for reducing the size of government rather than increasing funding for it.

    However I see a much more radical programme in play. This is about ending careers in a specific public service institution, thus ending institutional knowledge independent of the funder provider split that corporatises government delivery of services. It essentially is to transform the public sector so that it can be handed over to private sector corporate management. Management that will be increasingly outsourced to foreigners (recent appointments of foreigners to leadership of departments/ministry also served to reduce the capacity of the domestic public service to oppose change). Of course this was because there was then no sense of public service to New Zealanders separate from obedience to the government/employer of the day.

    It’s reform that has not been researched, nor involved any consultative participation by stakeholders, or been given any form of political mandate (Key even promised not to reduce public service numbers in 2008). It’s not really a policy that has been declared in the National or ACT Party manifesto. What party in the democratic process would admit their plan was to reduce the capacity of the people to be able to organise, via government, action independent of the market place.

    Effectively the capitalists have declared acquired such wealth and power within the system over the past 30 years that they have a lot to lose if we returned to the distribution of wealth and income of the past. So they push on to realise changes that would establish their dominance of the infrastructure of government.

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