01 March 2013

As New Zealand presses ahead with new Civil Service legislation, what benefit might there be to having the structure of government written down?

The New Zealand minister for the Civil Service, Dr Jonathan Coleman, was in the UK this week and spoke at New Zealand House about their government reform programme. This focuses on ten measurable results which address complex issues cutting across department boundaries, such as reducing the rate of assaults on children and cutting long-term welfare dependence.

The scale of this reform agenda is striking, and requires a very different way of working. Chief executives in New Zealand have responded innovatively. For example, Paul Reynolds at the Ministry for Environment chairs a new network of agencies to provide coordinated advice to government on natural resources policy. This is supported by the central departments – the Treasury, State Services Commission, and the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet – which are taking seriously the need for strong corporate leadership. They recently established a joint ‘performance hub’, located in the Treasury, bringing together staff to focus on driving improvements throughout the system.

Until now, chief executive objectives were focused on their own department’s goals. This drove performance and provided clear accountability but reinforced silo tendencies, undermining efforts to tackle complex problems requiring coordination between agencies.

To ensure reforms are not fleeting or cosmetic, the New Zealand government wants them embedded in new legislation, which will empower the new Head of State Services to direct resources and hold chief executives to account for achieving system-wide outcomes.

The New Zealand Civil Service is based in statute – the State Sector Act 1988 – which details the legal obligations and relationships between ministers, chief executives (their department heads), and the State Services Commissioner (a sort of combination of the UK Head of the Civil Service and the Civil Service Commissioners). The reforms are in the State Sector and Public Finance Reform Bill, which is in committee stage in the New Zealand parliament and should become law by the summer.

Why is the use of legislation significant? It achieves two things that the UK might want to learn from.
First, writing legislation requires the government to commit clearly to the changes it wants in the public service. While flexibility is often a virtue, clarity and coherence are also important when it comes to designing the structures of government. The New Zealand reform agenda is prioritised by the governing party from the Prime Minister downwards, and it was developed and supported by the central government departments. The analytical work and research that shaped the legislation is publicly accessible, and parliamentary deliberation means the government has to articulate and defend the changes. Legislation requires the government to show its hand, and to show its working.

Second, setting out key relationships in legislation assists in creating a shared view of where power and accountability reside in the system, and who responds to whom. This does not mean that there will be universal agreement that this is how the system should be structured, but there will hopefully be a better idea of how the system is structured. As our research into the New Zealand and Australian public services showed, the reality is of course more complex than rules alone suggest, but the starting point at least is clear.

In contrast, the starting point for debate in the UK is Yes, Minister. Instead of a clear legislative position, unspoken convention and accepted practice assume a shared understanding of where authority and accountability reside. If this was once true, recent debate suggests it is no longer clear that we are all describing the same Civil Service.

In lieu of clear description, metaphors – often mixed – are deployed to try and describe the relationship between ministers and mandarins. It is a marriage in need of counselling and support to some; to others it is the relationship of a chairman to CEO.

The UK does have its own legislation: the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 put the civil service on a statutory basis. Yet compared to the New Zealand legislation, this is much more limited and says little about where power, accountability, and responsibility lie. It was passed during the pre-election ‘wash up’ in 2010, and ended up as an omnibus bill with the law for the civil service being squeezed by measures on such diverse areas as the tax status of MPs, how treaties should be ratified, and how votes should be counted in parliamentary elections. The sections concerning the Civil Service avoided the same attention a normal bill would receive.

The Act’s supporters argue it simply placed the accepted status quo on the statute book. Yet as the recent skirmishes between ministers and officials suggest, it is not at all self-evident that the status quo is accepted, or acceptable.

Convention and mutual understanding might have guided us in the past, but certainty that it can do so into the future is misplaced. Perhaps we might learn from our Kiwi colleagues and be prepared to offer more clarity and commitment about what we believe the Civil Service is, and what it should be in the future.

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