Having been involved in a couple of these over the years, they are interesting exercises. Departments/Ministries choose whether to give free and frank advice that may – to some – show ideological colours – or they dish out pablum - something plain and boring, which doesn’t represent a challenge to the status quo. Some of these briefings have been out this week and reported. A GOOD department will step aside from current policy and talk about outcomes, the current situation and what should be done to improve outcomes. This is a carefully calculated briefing about moving forward, rather than criticising past policies. Government departments can’t be seen to support or oppose previous policies, but simply advise on what they believe – professionally – is best.
Now the cynics amongst you will say this is highly political – there is no way that Treasury will NOT say cut spending and tax, or that the Minister for the Environment wont say tax pollution, regulate activities and spend money on green things. There is some truth to that – but I think that is the difference in flavour among many in the public sector. The difference between the statist and the economic rationalists, and each government department has a greater or lesser number of these.
For example, you are less likely to find some socialist statist nutcase working for The Treasury than an Austrian school free-market advocate – some would say like attracts like, I would say that this is simply good old fashioned commonsense. Treasury also, mostly, attracts highly skilled intelligent hard working people – the crèm de la crem of the public sector. This is one reason why Treasury gets involved in most areas of the public sector – not only does it have to advise on spending, but it actually contains high quality analysts generally. New Zealand could do worse than have the government run by The Treasury (though it could do better too). See much of what Treasury does is stop money being wasted and stop bad ideas from being implemented – so it attracts people who have the brains and the balls to say “wait- why are we doing this? What’s the evidence this is worth doing? Prove it!”. I can say that, on average, 4 out of 5 Treasury officials I dealt with were very smart people who I could engage with intellectually about issues. They had to go to Health, Education, Te Puni Kokiri, Environment and Social Development and say no – or ask questions of those who wanted to spend your money on their ideas. Treasury provided a brake on spending, and many times it would offer alternate recommendations in Cabinet papers which opposed what other departments were proposing- and it was really up to Dr. Cullen to take or leave that advice, and convince his colleagues if he took it.
On the flipside, the kooky useless nano-kleptoMinistries (Pacific Island Affairs, Youth Affairs, Women’s Affairs) tend to attract, mostly (I say this because I get surprised when the occasional intelligent rational person I know somehow gets hired by these agencies), lefty post-modernist deconstructionist types, or simply the vacant “I wanna help people” crowd who sleepwalk their ways from largely useless university degrees. These are the ones who see government as this great moneybin which Uncle Scrooge (Treasury) guards, and they want to save the world- they think that with the money taken from the productive, they can someone make a difference. They think that the country would be worse off without these little tags on the skin of the country, when in fact many of us can remember before they existed and would be happy to see those tags surgically removed. It would hurt the people there, but we would all be better off. These nano-kleptoMinistries could all be gone tomorrow, and virtually nobody in the country would be worse off, or miss them.
More disconcerting are the mega-kleptoMinistries – Education, Heath, Social Development, and many others, which constantly suck up large amounts of money, and play on the political heartstrings of MPs. They are driven almost entirely by socialists of some variety, who think what they do is so important and the only reason it isn’t done as well as it could be, is lack of money. Having convinced most New Zealanders that their health care and education is a matter for nanny state, they want to spend more, intervene more and regulate and tax more. They are the ones living it up under Labour, and they hate National governments. They are from leftwing academic, professional or union backgrounds and have every excuse in the world as to why they shouldn’t be accountable for performance – after all health is about people dying, and education about children – and what heartless soul would cut money for that!
I recommend you read post election briefings from The Treasury at least, and any other department you have a particular interest in. The media wont report on these critically – as New Zealand has precious few journalists, just reporters that take as given what departments say – except Treasury, because journalists are wary of anyone talking economics – they don’t understand it.