Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Key will listen to public service?

According to the NZ Herald John Key has said that "National will expect a high degree of professionalism from the public service, part of which is telling ministers what they are not comfortable hearing...As part of this openness, policy advisers will be able to take part in Cabinet committee discussions where it is appropriate".

Now that may well help secure the Wellington Central vote, but there is something in this - and I know this only because I once worked for the public service and saw the dramatic change in attitude between National and Labour in dealing with it. Quite simple Labour didn't trust public servants, especially those from Treasury, what was then the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Transport and also Department of Internal Affairs and several others, although the more "social" the Ministry, the warmer Labour has been towards it.

I recall one Minister not wanting to see words that she considered being "New Right Business Roundtable speak" like "accountability", "transparency" and "efficiency". Others were suspicious of getting told policies were expensive or difficult to implement, advice was rejected. More importantly, political advisors became the new vetting staff between officials and the Minister. Heather Simpson being the most important, but most Ministers got political advisors quickly - to send back reports, draft Cabinet papers and the like, or request them. It reduced official contact with Ministers, it meant Ministers got what their political advisors thought they would get and what they understand. Some Labour political advisors are very intelligent, Heather Simpson being one, setting aside the politics. Others are/were not the sharpest knives in the kitchen.

The Nats may well do the reverse of Labour, believing Treasury over all others, which frankly wouldn't be a bad place to start. Most departments have evolved under Labour to reflect a more interventionist approach on many issues, some of course simply should not exist and they will justify their existence in ways that needs some tight scrutiny (Treasury has relaxed that a little over the years as Labour Government Ministers WANTED to spend more money).

Of course in the last few years the numbers working for the public sector, doing policy, have grown enormously. The quality has reduced significantly as a result - ask for objective analysis, economic appraisal, optioneering and with some you'll get a blank stare. The Nats could do worse than simply demand significant reductions in those in the state sector who prepare "advice" - the most important advice is "this is what we shouldn't be doing".

In fact the first questions that Ministers for an incoming National government should ask of departmental chief executives is this:

"Tell me all the things you currently do that have no net value for taxpayers. I expect a list within 5 working days."

"Tell me all the things you currently do that have a net value for taxpayers, that they would agree to choose to pay for from their own pocket. Give me evidence, that should come in 10 working days"

"Tell me all the programmes started by the current government, tell me your free and frank advice about them, and why I shouldn't end them immediately. You have 5 working days"

"Tell me your budget in 1999, show me how to reduce your current budget to those levels in real terms and what the consequences are if they are not reduced. If you didn't exist then, tell me why you should exist now. You have 5 working days".

Ask Treasury the same of all the budgets, and ask it to scrutinise them all.

It would be a start.

1 comment:

Craig D said...

What a dream it would be to have a government that asked those questions!

I'm very fond of the system of government proposed by Robert Heinlein in the moon is a harsh mistress:

A lower house, concerned with new law, where a 2/3rds majority is required to pass a law.

An upper house, concerned with repealing law, where a 1/3rd minority is required to repeal a law.

(This system would need a robust constitution applied also)

As far as i'm concerned, our politicians spend far too much time thinking about what new law we need, rather than thinking about what law we DON'T need.