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Renewal of the public service is everyone’s job

This article originally appeared in the Public Sector journal July 2021. It is reproduced here with the permission of IPANZ (Institute of Public Administration New Zealand).

Pia Andrews sees wonderful opportunities in the new Public Service Act 2020 (New Zealand).

As someone who is passionate about public sector renewal and transformation, I was fascinated to read the new Public Service Act. I believe it provides a powerful lever for systemic change, but a lever is only effective when you use it.

I’ve heard different opinions about the Act across Aotearoa. Some see it as the start of getting the sector back to being a vehicle for public good. Some view it with scepticism. To my mind, both of these perspectives are valid, because the Act provides both a light on the hill, and a stark counter-factual to the daily experience of many. 

At the end of the day, the Act is what you make of it, what we all make of it. If you are one of the many people “waiting for it to be implemented”, then I suggest you are, at best, missing an opportunity. I urge you to do everything in your power to take this moment and make it count. The lever is there, let’s use it. 

This article examines key aspects of the Act, then provides some practical examples of how it could be applied. 

Unpacking the new Public Service Act (2020)

The Purpose of the Act is bold because it recognises the need for change and modernisation, for establishing a shared purpose, and for better ways of working that are more collaborative, transparent, and outcomes focused. Most importantly, the Act affirms that the fundamental characteristic of the public service is to “act with a spirit of service to the community”.

But we need to look back in time to understand why such a legislative intervention was needed.

From the mid-1980s, there was a global shift in public sectors away from service to the public and towards managerialism and artificial “business” imperatives. This pseudo-business approach, combined with subsequent generations of leadership who increasingly see themselves more as executives than stewards of public good, has resulted in some institutions losing their core purpose, losing their stewardship culture, and losing touch with the public they serve. 

Short-termism has become rewarded at the cost of long-term planning and delivery of public value. The Act’s purpose supports a balanced public service approach that actively holds the role of caretaker of the long term public interest, while supporting democratic, constitutional and successive governments, and actively engaging citizens. It is with this balance that resources, no matter how stretched, could be purposefully and proportionally distributed to both urgent short term priorities as well as strategic long term ones. 

Principles and values

The principles and values reinforce a way of working that is politically neutral, free and frank, merit based, and focused on long-term planning, with a commitment to open government and stewardship. The values reinforce a way of behaving that is impartial, accountable, trustworthy, respectful, and responsive to the people of New Zealand. These provide a powerful call to action for all public servants and a systemic framework for a culture that rewards high integrity and brave pursuit of values-based public good for Aotearoa.

Crown’s relationship with Māori

Public service leaders are “responsible for developing and maintaining the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives.” This requires us all to seek to understand different ways of thinking, living and seeing the world, including our own worldview. It presents an opportunity to shift towards an open-minded and respectful partnership framework with ngā Iwi and Māori. You can start small by simply taking the time to understand the whakapapa, stories, values and whanaungatanga of the people you work with and serve. A greater engagement of and understanding of Mātauranga Māori could help us all live up to the intent, sovereignty, and community empowerment outlined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Integrity and conduct

The Act states “… public service employees have all the rights and freedoms affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”. To have public servants acknowledged as actual people with rights and responsibilities like any other citizen might seem an unnecessary truism, but this simple acknowledgment promotes a public service that trusts in and empowers all public servants to be an active part of civil society. It also improves the confidence of public servants to engage effectively and openly with others (citizens, ngā Iwi, other sectors, experts, community forums). By contrast, there are many jurisdictions around the world that inhibit, intimidate, or simply prohibit public servants from having any role in civil society.

Joint operational agreements

The Act supports the establishment of “joint operational agreements”, which always need to be hosted by an existing department. The challenge is new initiatives may be constrained by the host departments, so when establishing these new agreements, carefully consider how to structure and empower them to do something differently or better, otherwise they will simply become carbon copies of their hosts.

Applying the Act to two problem areas

Problem #1: Maintaining trust in the public service 

Trust is hard won and easily lost. Public institutions globally are struggling to shift from simply seeking trust, to being more trustworthy. Trust in the public service is certainly impacted by real or perceived issues with services, policies or decision making, and reduced confidence can lead to people not trusting, engaging with, or respecting the policies or democratic outcomes administered by the public sector. 

Ways to apply the Act: 

  • Engage the public to inclusively co-design “trustworthy” policies, programmes, services and infrastructure that reflect societal values and needs. 
  • Explore what would be needed to support transparent, appealable, and auditable decisions and services that are traceable back to law, such as publicly available and testable legislation as code. 
  • Be operationally transparent – publish your operating procedures, governance, oversight mechanisms reports, etc. Make it easy for the public to find, learn about, keep up to date with, and contribute to your programme, and publicly track your progress and impact. 
  • Ensure that reports to the Public Service Commissioner on progress towards goals are publicly available.
  • Embed, measure, and monitor the various accountabilities and performance requirements outlined in the Act.
  • Take a human and whānau-centred approach, not just a user-centric approach. 
  • Apply the Wellbeing Framework into policy proposals, funding proposals, measurement and performance frameworks, and independent baselining. 

Problem #2: Focusing on long-term planning and policy futures  

The public service has become largely reactive. While there are exceptions – like the Department of Conservation 50-year goals and planning – most agencies are largely driven by the latest urgency, budget or electoral cycle. But how can you take the right next step if you don’t know where you are going? 

Ways to apply the Act:

  • Dedicate a percentage (I suggest 15%) of your programme resource to community engagement efforts, long-term planning, and staff innovation.
  • Establish a joint “policy futures” operational agreement between all policy units to co-resource policy proposals and optimistic futures for Aotearoa that draw on research, emerging trends, public values and changing needs.
  • Assume and monitor for continuous change in everything you do. Be operationally proactive.
  • Consider how your department could better support community initiatives. Provide public infrastructure (including digital) for others to build on.

Conclusion and what next?

The Act reminds public servants of our responsibilities to communities, but it also recognises us as independent  individuals with a democratic right to be engaged in civil society. It promotes a more adaptive, confident and collaborative public service and includes stronger recognition of the role of the public service to support partnership between Māori and the Crown. 

At all levels, individuals, teams, divisions and departments should take time to review and apply the Act to all programs, structures, services, policies and ways of working, to nudge the entire machinery of government towards a greater “spirit of service to the community”. Here are some more things you could try today:

  • Be proud and have a voice! Join user groups, meet-ups, blogs, and communities of practice, and explore what “good” could look like for Aotearoa. Actively resist cynicism or complacency. 
  • Close the policy-implementation divide through multi-disciplinary design and delivery of policies and services.
  • Raise thoughtful opportunities to apply the Act with your team leads, managers, executives, and leaders and at conferences and hui.
  • Question the status quo and take time to learn about the history of the public sector. 
  • Explore what it means to be participatory, trustworthy, and equitable in the 21st century.
  • Actively watch for and resist the use of technology, structure, hierarchy, or policy to dehumanise or disempower the people and communities you serve.

This path will not be easy, and some people will be systemically or personally motivated to maintain the status quo. But there are many more public servants who want to create change for the better, so use forums like GOVIS and IPANZ to support each other. Being the kindest and calmest person in the room will often help, but sometimes this will also mean not staying in an environment that doesn’t support the sort of public service you believe in. 

For all those who work so hard every day just to keep the lights on, may I suggest it is perhaps time to stop allowing yourself to be someone else’s crutch? Only then can we start to collectively repair and renew where things are broken.`

I’ll finish by saying the people of this wonderful country are relying on you. So please be brave, be bold, and together we have a chance of creating a more participatory, trustworthy, and humane public service, powered by the spirit of service that lies inside every public servant. 

With thanks to Simon Minto, Colin Benjamin, Ben Briggs, Kim Murphy-Stewart, Michelle Edgerley, Victoria Wray, Chris Cormack (Kaihuawaere Matihiko, Catalyst IT), Karen McNamara, and Thomas Andrews, for peer reviewing.

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