Peter Hughes appointed State Services Commissioner

May 3rd, 2016 at 11:24 am by David Farrar

John Key has announced:

Prime Minister John Key has today announced the appointment of Peter Hughes CNZM as the next State Services Commissioner and Head of State Services.

Mr Hughes has been appointed for a five year term starting on 4 July 2016.

“I am very pleased to appoint Peter Hughes as the next State Services Commissioner and Head of State Services,” says Mr Key.

“Peter has dedicated his working life to the public service and is one of New Zealand’s most experienced and respected Public Service Chief Executives.

This is a very good appointment. Hughes is arguably the most capable chief executive in the public sector since Dame Margaret Bazley. He did a very good job running the Ministry of Social Development, and then after a brief stint at Victoria University returned to head up the Ministry of Education.

Stakeholders (including unions) say he has made a huge difference at the Ministry, as they have got far better at working with the sector and supporting the Minister.

The SSC is not seen as hugely effective at the moment. I’m one of those who has advocated that it might be better to have abolished it, and transferred its functions to DPMC. The appointment of Hughes is the best opportunity it has to regain the high respect it used to have as one of the three central co-ordinating agencies.

The only downside with the appointment of Hughes, is he will be very hard to replace in Education.

Kiwis more satisfied with public services

March 9th, 2015 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Some interesting changes in the public satisfaction with public services, comparing 2014 with 2007. Considering the lid on staff numbers, and the limited extra funding, the SSC survey on public satisfaction is proof you can do more with less.

  • ECE provider quality up from 73% in 2007 to 81% in 2014
  • Public school quality via ERA up from 68% to 73%
  • Outpatient service quality up from 69% to 73%
  • Police non emergency responses up from 62% to 66%
  • Emergency services up from 73% to 79%
  • ACC services up from 65% to 70%
  • Housing NZ up from 68% to 73%


Sutton quits

November 17th, 2014 at 2:37 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Roger Sutton has resigned as chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).

He had been under investigation for the last seven weeks after a complaint of sexual harassment from a senior staff member.

The allegation accused him of making inappropriate jokes and comments, and giving her an unwelcome hug.

A report provided to the State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie did not establish conduct which would have led to Sutton being dismissed and Rennie said he would not have asked him to stand down. 

“However, Mr Sutton offered his resignation and this was accepted,” Rennie said in a statement today.

A sad end to Sutton’s role at CERA. He was universally praised as the perfect person for the job when he was appointed. While he has obviously had some detractors during his tenure, he still remained very well respected.

We don’t know the details of the allegations, and are unlikely to know them. But it seems they are at the inappropriate humour side of things, rather than deliberate harassment. The SSC said that he would not have been sacked for them.

SSC on Collins and Feeley

August 31st, 2014 at 3:38 pm by David Farrar

Iain Rennie, the State Services Commissioner put out a release this morning. In it he said:

“Any activity that undermines, or has the potential to undermine, the trust and confidence in the public service to impartially serve the interests of the government and New Zealanders is a matter of concern to me.”

 “It is important that Chief Executives and Ministers mutually support each other to carry out their respective roles, in order to work together to serve the best interests of New Zealand and New Zealanders. Ministers are entitled to hold public servants to high standards of trust and performance and, in turn, should respect the role the public service plays.”

“I am therefore extremely concerned by an allegation that a Minister has associated with third parties to discuss influencing my assessment of a Public Service Chief Executive.  If true, this would be wholly unacceptable.”

“I told the Prime Minister’s Office that Judith Collins had a positive view of Mr Feeley’s  performance through her time as Minister responsible for the Serious Fraud Office.”

The relevant Ministers are consulted at least annually on how they view the performance of their respective CE’s.  This hardly looks like a Minister who was unhappy with their CE.

“The Commission has reviewed its documentation and sought the recollections of staff responsible for the SFO portfolio at the time in coming to this view.  This includes the period following the date of the email in October 2011 released today by the Prime Minister.  Earlier in 2011, Judith Collins had raised with me the appropriateness of Mr Feeley’s consumption of a bottle of champagne following a media inquiry.

“It was appropriate that she spoke to me about this matter and my view on the matter was released publicly at the time.”

A key thing to note here is that the raising of the issue around the champagne bottle occurred well before the e-mail. There was no information relayed to the SSC after the conversation referred to in the e-mail.

“Any campaign to undermine my confidence in Adam Feeley’s performance was entirely ineffective and unsuccessful.  He was a strongly performing Chief Executive through his tenure for his work in transforming the SFO and vigorously pursuing criminal conduct in respect of finance company collapses.”

I would be very happy to consider Mr Feeley’s return to the Public Service in the future.”

The key thing again to note is that Collins gave Feeley positive performance appraisals, which is incongruous with the suggestion she was gunning for him.


SSC guide to election year neutrality for public servants

February 26th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The SSC has done a very funny (I hope it was intentional!) video on the need for public servants to maintain political neutrality – especially in election year. Much better than a dry old memo.

Even a section on responding to comments on blogs!

The Fletcher appointment

April 3rd, 2013 at 7:22 am by David Farrar

Andrea Vance at Stuff reports:

Spy boss Ian Fletcher was not short-listed for the top job at the Government’s foreign spy agency – but applied after a phone call from Prime Minister John Key.

The short list – drawn up by a recruitment company – was rejected by State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie. …

Mr Rennie confirmed yesterday that he had rejected the short list. Mr Key said that after he and Mr Rennie “agreed to look elsewhere,” Mr Key phoned Mr Fletcher, who was working in Australia.

“[Mr Key] said that if he was interested in the position of director, GCSB, he would need to go through a process and should call Maarten Wevers in the first instance,” the statement from Mr Key said. Sir Maarten was head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet at the time.

Mr Fletcher was the only candidate interviewed by a panel made up of Sir Maarten, defence secretary John McKinnon and deputy state services commissioner Helene Quilter.

Mr Rennie said the “panel was unanimous . . . that Mr Fletcher was suitable for appointment”.

I think it is unfortunate the Prime Minister phoned Ian Fletcher to suggest he applies. While he would not have got the job if he wasn’t qualified, a phone call from the PM soliciting the application would carry weight with the State Services Commission.

I think Ministers should generally be very wary of suggesting people for state sector roles. David Parker, as Environment Minister,  endorsed Clare Curran for a role with the Environment Ministry, which was heavily scrutinised.

Now Fletcher has no political connections, but I think the same principle applies. Ministers are best to avoid involvement outside their formal roles.

A former diplomat, Mr Fletcher was chief executive officer of Queensland’s Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation when he was appointed. A high-flier in the British civil service, he had also worked for the European Commission and the United Nations.

Mr Key says he and Mr Fletcher met a “couple of times” when Mr Fletcher was in Queensland and no more than a “handful” of occasions between the mid-2000s and his GCSB appointment.

Mr Key disclosed the links to Mr Rennie during the appointment process.


Peter Hughes appointed Acting Secretary of Education

December 19th, 2012 at 12:56 pm by David Farrar

The State Services Commissioner has announced:

The State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, today announced that he has accepted the resignation of the Secretary for Education and Chief Executive Ms Lesley Longstone.

Mr Rennie said that the last six months have been especially challenging for the Ministry of Education.  Despite the best efforts of the Chief Executive to work through a number of issues, there now needs to be a focus on re-building the critical relationships that have been strained.

Following very careful thought and discussion, Lesley and I have decided that the best interests of the Ministry would be served by her stepping down and the appointment of a new Chief Executive, Mr Rennie said. …

Mr Rennie said he was grateful to Victoria University of Wellington for supporting the secondment of former Public Service chief executive Peter Hughes as the Acting Chief Executive and Secretary for Education. Peter Hughes will take up his role from 9 February 2013. The State Services Commission will advertise for the permanent role in the New Year.

This has the potential to make a significant difference. Peter Hughes is the former CE of MSD and despite the huge complexities of that ministry, was twice judged top performing public sector CE by the Trans-Tasman panel.

By contrast, the Ministry of Education has consistently come near the bottom of the ratings for the 40 or so core public sector agencies. This has always been a huge concern when you consider the importance of education to New Zealand.

The departure of Longstone and appointment (for now) of Hughes, is an opportunity to change things for the better. I look at what I regard as the three main educational stuff ups of the year. They were:

  1. The Budget announcement on increased class sizes in return for improved teacher quality
  2. The Christchurch schools restructuring
  3. The Novopay performance

The 1st issue was a political failure. The Government failed to define what they would do to improve teacher quality, and hence it was like asking for a blank cheque. The policy could have worked if the work had been done on what precisely would be done to improve teacher quality – then people may accept the trade off. The responsibility for that one rests with the Minister, but to be fair to Hekia the decision was a collective one by Cabinet – not hers alone.

The 2nd and 3rd issues were primarily operational failures by the Ministry. The Minister is accountable for their performance, but not directly responsible. In this case, seeing the departure of the CE, and a very competent (temporary) replacement announced is exactly what should happen for such operational failings.

Hughes has a huge task ahead of him, to make changes to the Ministry. There are many good people there, but the structure and culture as a whole are not currently up to the job.

Enemies of the current Government will claim that everything that has happened has been the Minister’s fault. As I have said, she is accountable and there has been political failures also. But to be honest if you really care about improving the NZ education system, you’d be welcoming the appointment of someone like Peter Hughes to be Acting Secretary of Education.

The facts Hughes has agreed to take the role on, is very significant also. He had left the public sector. He would not take on the role unless he had confidence both in the Minister, and in his ability to work with her to make change for the better. He pretty much could have had his choice of any public sector job he wanted when he left MSD.

I look forward to seeing how 2013 goes for Education. It could be very different to 2012.

Goff has a point

October 12th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Labour’s Phil Goff has attacked a big pay rise for the head of the Foreign Affairs ministry as a blatant double standard at a time when many diplomats are losing their jobs.

Figures on state sector chief executives’ pay released today showed Mfat boss John Allen’s salary last year was the highest among chief executives, with a pay rise of $40,000 taking his package between $620,000 and $629,999.

I have no problem with Govt CEOs getting paid market rates, and getting pay rises when they perform well.

But the MFAT restructuring led by the CEO has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, and for the SSC to give the CEO that presided over it a 7% or so payrise is going to go down badly with many. John Allen was an excellent CEO of NZ Post, and may well be doing many things well at MFAT – but the restructuring was a critical piece of work, and there was a near complete failure to get institutional support for it.

This is like the vexed issue of private sector CEOs pay. I don’t think most people are against CEOs getting huge salaries – so long as they and their companies are doing well. Few people ever would have claimed that Rob Fyfe didn’t add value to Air NZ well in excess of a million dollars. Steve Jobs was once valued by the market as being worth several billion to Apple, as that is how far their share price fell on news of his cancer.

But what annoys people is when a company is not performing, and the CEO gets a big pay increase and bonuses.

The figures, released by the State Services Commission also showed shamed former head of the Department of Building and Housing (DBH) Katrina Bach was paid out $81,105 in entitlements when she left the job earlier this year.

This one is a non-issue though. If someone is owed annual leave, they of course get it paid out when they leave. Surely there is no suggestion that the Government should break the law and not pay someone their legal entitlements.

Overall, the average increase in base salary for chief executives was 2.7 per cent. That compared with movement in average base salary across all public service staff of 3 per cent, Rennie said. …

One fifth of state sector bosses took an effective pay cut with either no change to their pay or a reduction.

2.7% overall is pretty modest. The only real issue is the big increase for MFAT CEO.


State sector ratings

June 5th, 2012 at 6:00 am by David Farrar

John Hartevelt at Dom Post reports:

ACC’S miserable run continues with its rating in an annual review of state sector performance sinking like a stone.

The third annual review co-ordinated by political newsletter Trans Tasman also had bad news for Building and Housing Department chief executive Katrina Bach, who was ranked the worst of 38 public sector bosses.

Ms Bach’s rating slumped from 3.93 last year to 2 this year, while the overall performance of her department dropped from 3.75 to 2.86.

The Trans Tasman review, released today, canvassed the views of 19 “opinion leaders” on the performance of state sector leaders, issuing scores of between 1 (bad) and 7 (excellent).

The average ranking for agency performance was 4.1 (down from 4.3 last year) and 4.4 for chief executive performance (down from 4.6).

At ACC, the chief executive’s rating dropped from 4.5 to 3.7 and the agency overall went from 4.4 down to 3.7. …

Others taking a hit in the review included embattled Foreign Affairs chief executive John Allen.

Persistent leaks to the media and Opposition MPs throughout a restructuring process at the ministry have made for a tough few months for Mr Allen.

His score dropped 0.8 to a below-average score of 3.8, and Foreign Affairs as a whole dropped 0.3 to 4.3. The ministry remained well rated for ease of business at 4.6 and quality at 4.4, however. …

Mr Rennie’s score dropped from 4.06 to 3.43 and the commission fell from 3.94 to 3.31, though Mr Rennie was described as hard-working and diligent with a “methodical approach”.

Top performers in the review included Conservation Department chief executive Al Morrison, who scored the highest ranking of 5.41, and Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard who was second on 5.35.

ACC, DBH and MFAT scoring lowly is no surprise, when you consider the past 12 months for each of them.

What I think is the more major issue, is that the State Services Commission is rated so low, when you consider it is one of the three central agencies responsible for standards in the state sector.

The Bach case

April 24th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post editorial:

One what would happen should a State Services Commission employee approach chief executive Iain Rennie, place his or her hands on his head, and inquire what is going on in there.

Till a few days ago conjecture would have been irrelevant. The employee would have been stood down while an inquiry was conducted, then, once the facts were confirmed, dismissed for unacceptable behaviour. The whole process would have taken a matter of days. Some things are simply unacceptable in the workplace. One of them is employees manhandling their bosses; another is bosses manhandling employees.

I’m not sure this is the case. Certainly such behaviour is unacceptable. But one can not sack without warning someone for doing something unacceptable unless it meets a threshold. I suspect an employment tribunal would find in favour of an employee sacked for the above, if it was a one off, and they were otherwise a good employee.

Hence I am not one of those saying Katrina Bach should have been sacked. She should have been disciplined, warned and (unlike most employees) is suffering a financial penalty for her misconduct.

Again I am not defending her conduct. I’m just saying that the law applies equally to all employees.

SIS failed with Wilce clearance

January 28th, 2011 at 3:30 pm by David Farrar

The SSC report in the vetting of Stephen Wilce has been released.

The State Services Commissioner notes the following lapses by the SIS:

  • that NZSIS did not check with counterpart overseas agencies to see what they knew about Mr Wilce. This was contrary to standard practice in cases where the applicant for a security clearance had worked overseas;
  • that NZSIS did not follow up on Mr Wilce’s failure to disclose convictions once the Police check had revealed that he had convictions; and
  • that NZSIS did not record or follow up on information received on Mr Wilce after the announcement of his appointment in the NZDF

I have to say these are pretty massive lapses. I mean they discover he had undsiclosed convictions and they did nothing. They had information supplied to them he wasn’t legit and they did nothing.

The SSC concludes:

The Director of NZSIS accepts the findings of both Mr Walter and the Court of Inquiry. He also accepts my finding that the anomalies occurring in Mr Wilce’s vetting process amounted to failings by the NZSIS in the provision of a professional security service.

That is a pretty big slap.

John Key notes:

“The State Services Commissioner has said further action needs to be taken to demonstrate confidence in the vetting system, and he will report back to me in the first half of this year. I have also asked a group of senior officials to closely monitor progress around this issue,” says Mr Key.

Two key initiatives will underpin the programme of action. An independent, international review of the current vetting system, along with other work, will be started in order to provide better information on the vetting system’s performance. In addition, the Director of Security is currently sampling 5 per cent of the Top Secret vettings undertaken at the time Mr Wilce was checked to provide an assurance that the failures were an exceptional event.

We were lucky that the failures only let through a braggart, rather than someone hostile to NZ’s interests.

Inquiry into Wilce hiring

September 13th, 2010 at 11:19 am by David Farrar

NZPA report:

The State Service Commission will investigate how Stephen Wilce was able to be hired as the Defence Force’s top scientist without his credentials being properly checked and how he was able to obtain top level security clearance.

Prime Minister John Key, who is also the Minister in Charge of the NZ Security Intelligence Service, told Breakfast on TV One that over that weekend he had spoken to State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie who would investigate. …

Mr Key said he was not happy about what had happened.

“Which is why over the weekend I asked Iain Rennie… to conduct an investigation looking firstly at the SIS – so specifically at this issue – but at the wider issue… The bigger worry is actually that this guy had access to top level security and therefore top level information.”

A lot of people are rushing to conclude that the employment consultants must be at fault. I would not rush to judgement there. I’ve employed half a dozen senior staff or CEOs using employment consultants. As the employer, you often do the reference checks yourself, as it can give you a better idea of how the potential employee will work out, any strengths and weaknesses etc.

What will be important is to establish whether any checks were done at all, and if so by whom.

SSC should investigate

February 16th, 2010 at 10:26 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

A directive from the Ministry of Education telling an Opposition MP that information requests needed to be answered by the minister was a communications blunder, the ministry says.

Labour Party state services spokesman Grant Robertson said he would write to the State Services Commission and ask it to investigate after MP Ruth Dyson made an inquiry to the ministry regarding policy about funding for disabled students.

She said she was trying to support the parents of a student whose support funding had been cut and was told that operational issues raised at a local level by government MPs could be dealt with locally, but requests for information from non-government MPs needed to go to the relevant minister formally for a response. …

The ministry said yesterday the directive given to Ms Dyson appeared to be the result of a staff member misunderstanding the rules.

Senior ministry manager Jim Matheson said the error was “regrettable”.

“The ministry will take steps to ensure such an error will not be repeated.”

It is 99% likely to just be a stuff up, but it is an important principle that MPs dealing with constituents issues are treated equally.

I think it would be useful to have the SSC to investigate – not so much to find any improper behaviour, but to send out a signal to other agencies how important it is not to make mistakes like this.

Do we need a State Services Commission?

February 2nd, 2010 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Grant Robertson blogs:

The end of the State Services Commission?

That might not be a title that sets the heart racing for all but the policy wonks. But actually it is important for the health of all the public services that we rely on everyday that there is someone to balance the power of the Treasury in the direction of the public sector.

Sigh. I think there are good reasons for and against having the SSC< but really the old bogeyman of anti-Treasury is so 1990s. You don’t spend $35 million a year on a department, just to “balance the power of Treasury”. That’s simplistic and puerile.

First of all the so called power of Treasury is a myth. Cullen ignored most of what Treasury said for nine years. The current Government goes against Treasury advice pretty regularly also.

And right now the SSC is not doing it.  What’s more if we believe the talk, it might not be around much longer in any case. The rumour mill in Wellington is rife that SSC might be merged into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

I think it is a legitimate question. We have three central co-ordinating agencies – Treasury, SSC and DPMC. For a small country, that may be overkill.

And as Grant himself acknowledges, SSC is not highly effective. The Commissioner is well regarded, but SSC as an institution is not thought of very well by many in the public sector. Some years ago it was seen as adding a lot of value, but in recent years I hear more and more complaints about it.

The place of the SSC in our public service has changed a lot. Until the state sector reforms of the 80s it played a very hands on role in terms of everything from setting pay to deciding how and when you could order stationery. There is widespread agreement that no one wants to go back there. But even post the 1980s the SSC had a position as the development and quality manager for the public service.  Now it seems all it does is employ the Chief Executives of other departments.

Umm Grant, under which Government did this all happen? It is a trend that started under Labour. And to some degree, it is because SSC got over extended and was trying to do too much. So they are focusing on doign fewer things well.

SSC has already had the responsibility for E-Government work taken away and given to the Department of Internal Affairs.

And when was this decision made? In 2007. And why was it made? Well the SSC record was somewhat patchy – think the huge loss making Government Shared Network.

SSC being absorbed into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be a bad move from my perspective as it would decrease its independence from the Executive of the day. But given its diminished role it is little wonder that this kind of speculation is about.

Oh Grant. You have worked in the public service. So you know better than talking about the SSC being independent from the Executive of the day. The SSC has the same status as DPMC, and is not independent from the Executive – they are part of it.

I don’t know what point Grant is trying to make. Is he saying that Labour was wrong to diminish the role of the SSC? Or is he saying it should be retained, even though it no longer provides much of a role other than employing CEOs?

Why not propose your own preferred state sector structure, rather than just complain about the power of Treasury? Do we have too many, too few or the right number of agencies for example?

There is a need for change and adaptation in the public sector, and SSC should be  big part of that.  I have given some of my thoughts on how this could happen before. We need the Treasury to be carefully analysing all the spending done by the government, that is their job.  But we have seen before the impact when they are too dominant.  In the case of the public service there needs to be someone looking at the health of the overall system in terms of the quality of services New Zealanders receive, not just from a fiscal perspective.   This should, and could, be the SSC in my view.  But right about now they are on the margins, and in the end it is the public services that all New Zealanders use that will suffer as a result.

but Grant doesn’t say why this so called essential role, can’t be done by DPMC (who are highly regarded and respected by those who deal with them)? They are not the Prime Minister’s Office – they are a Department of State.

Anyway I will float an idea of my own, that who knows Grant may even agree with, in terms of “balancing the power” of Treasury. It is to have a Ministry of Social Policy that is so highly regarded, that the top social policy people in New Zealand want to work there, and just as Treasury comments on basically every Cabinet paper from an economic perspective, an MSP would comment on every paper from a social policy perspective.

Not so much a rival to Treasury, as a peer organisation.

This MSP, should replace the multitude of existing small agencies – specifically Pacific Island Affairs, TPK (their policy arm), MSD policy arm, Ministry of Youth Affairs, Ethnic Affairs Unit,  Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Disability Issues Unit etc etc.

I know some people like the identity of having separate ministries such as Women’s Affairs, but with no offence to the staff, they hold almost no weight with Government. The objections of MWA to a policy probably cause a Minister to pause for five seconds at most as they read that section of a Cabinet paper – and no I am not just talking about National. The small ministries and units are not well regarded.

But if you had an MSP, that attracted the very top social policy analysts in NZ, that was the place where almost all social policy graduates want to work at for at least a few years (as Treasury and MFAT is for many people), then that would carry weight with Government. The “gender equity” team of an MSP, would have far more influence withing Government that the MWA has. Because when their analysis goes out, it goes out with the authority and credibility of the entire MSP and its Chief Executive.

So my model for the public service would be:

  1. Merge existing small social policy ministries and units into one top class Ministry of Social Policy, that is resourced to be able to contribute to Cabinet papers to the same degree Treasury is. Treasury’s job will be to report on the economic effects of a polcy, and MSP on the social policy effects.
  2. Merge SSC into DPMC.
  3. Admit National was wrong in breaking up large Departments like Justice into stand alone agencies (Courts, Corrections, Justice etc) in the 90s and continue the trend started by Labour to merge agencies in a sector together with an eventual goal of a larger number of super-ministries such as the existing MED, DIA, and a smaller number of stand alone agencies. Eventually one might have a dozen super ministries – economic, law& order, health, education, business, social policy, service delivery etc. This should reduce backend costs, but also lead to better leadership and co-ordination.
  4. Reduce the number of Ministers in Cabinet so there is one per super ministry.
  5. Increase the number of Ministers outside Cabinet who may have delegated responsibility for units or branches within super-ministries, but be accountable to the Minister within Cabinet for them. This is a bit like the UK system where you have two tiers of Ministers – a small Cabinet with Secretaries of State, and a larger external Ministry with Ministers of State.

I’m not wedded to the exact model above, but I would love to see a party or Government give it a serious examination, look at pros and cons, costs and savings etc.

NZ Govt CIO resigns

April 2nd, 2009 at 3:26 pm by David Farrar

Computerworld reports that Laurence Millar, the NZ Government Chief Information Officer, following the Walter Report into contracting between the SSC and Voco for the Government Shared Network.

The report found there was no deliberate wrongdoing or improper behaviour, but that procedures were not followed adequately and it shouldnot have been a closed tender.

I have a lot of respect for Laurence Millar, and his departure is a loss. Plus it is to his credit that he has resigned to accept responsibility for the problems. This is something that has been all too rare. Laurence has said:

The material details a number of areas where the project was not managed to the standard that New Zealanders’ would expect for a project of this size. As sponsor of the GSN I accept full accountability, and advised the Commissioner of that when I offered my resignation, which he has accepted.

“Mr Walter’s report confirms that there are no instances of any lapse of personal integrity, which is of fundamental importance to me personally and for the State Services Commission. The reports also comment on the challenges faced by the project and the commitment from individuals working on the project in responding to these challenges.

“I joined SSC from the private sector in March 2004, and have been involved in a wide range of successful initiatives, and been privileged to have worked with outstanding individuals and teams across New Zealand’s State Services.

“Along the way, I have taken some risks and made some mistakes. I have learned from these experiences and have used them to improve the way that we use ICT. I think the State Services is in better shape as a result of my contribution over the last five years.

I beleive it is. There have been many good initiatives in that time. But kudos to both Laurence, and his boss Ian Rennie, for this display of accountability for when things go wrong.

SSC 45% budget “cut”

March 20th, 2009 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Dom Post has a headline about how the SSC is having its budget cut 45%. Now before my friends in ACT have wet dreams about this being the start of the revolution, you need to look beyond the headline.

First of all, the IT delivery function of Government is merely being shifted from SSC to DIA. So there is not a cut of 45%, just a transfer of functions.

Also a large segment of the 45% “cut” appears to be the $28 million saved from terminating the loss making Government Shared Network. It seems almost no Govt Department wanted to use it. So no service is being cut, as Govt Depts will be getting high speed Internet access direct from ISPs – but for a much much cheaper cost.

There are some genuine “cuts” but it is impossible to know from the story how big or small they are.

Criticism of Collins

March 10th, 2009 at 8:50 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

The father of Karl Kuchenbecker says Corrections Minister Judith Collins is “all bark and no bite”, after she failed to remove Barry Matthews.

Paul Kuchenbecker said Mr Matthews now appeared to be “untouchable” as the department’s chief executive, despite presiding over a string of failures such as parolee Graeme Burton being left free to murder his son.

To be fair to Matthews, the story notes:

Mr Rennie noted that Mr Matthews had failed last year to get the Government to fund 61 extra staff to monitor parole.

Ms Collins said she had asked for extra funding in this year’s Budget and the Government would be responsible when considering it.

So maybe the former Minister has some responsibility? But having said that, the Auditor-General made it clear that the failings can not be attributed to lack of resource alone.

John Armstrong also comments:

The “crusher” crushed? Well, for the time being at least.

But don’t expect Judith Collins to take defeat sitting down. Though the Corrections Minister may have been comprehensively wiped in her battle to have her department’s chief executive Barry Matthews removed from his position, he would be fooling himself if he thinks he has won the war. …

She said later that she had told him exactly what she was telling the media. If so, she would have served notice on him that he would not have her confidence until he had rebuilt public confidence in the department. She would have dropped a strong hint that requires a clean-out in the department’s senior management which has been seen as an obstacle to the “culture change” she is seeking in the way the department operates.

She is not the first minister to demand that. Labour’s Damien O’Connor pleaded with Matthews to do it. Unlike O’Connor, Collins is not going to allow herself to become a victim of the department’s failings.

As I said yesterday, the improvements need to continue. If so, that is a win-win. If not, then I see more interventions by the State Services Commissioner.

Also worth highlighting a comment by former State Services Minister Trevor Mallard on this blog:

My advice on colleagues was always to say :- “Matters of confidence in Chief Executives is a matter for the State Service Commissioner.” And nothing else. It didn’t always feel great especially when I thought a CE was being unfairly criticised but is really the only approach if one wants to maintain the integrity of the appointment system.

Reasonable advice, but does it apply when you think the criticism is fair, and you don’t have confidence?

SSC says Matthews to stay

March 9th, 2009 at 12:22 pm by David Farrar

The State Services Commission has said it is not sacking Corrections CEO Barry Matthews. The Dom Post reports:

Corrections boss Barry Matthews’ job appears safe after the State Services Commissioner found he was not to blame for major failings in the management of parole.

Commissioner Iain Rennie said that after assessing the department’s performance following a damning Audit Office report into parole, it would not be justified to dismiss Mr Matthews.

“While the levels of non-compliance are higher than either the department or Auditor General desire, there is substantial evidence of a significant improvement in compliance over 2008 and a consistent and energetic focus on compliance issues by the chief executives and the managers of [probation services].”

In other words the peformance has been bad, but improving.

I suggest it would be a very good thing if it keeps improving. If it does not, I suspect the Minister will re-ask the SSC the question.

And no pay rises for state sector CEOs

January 23rd, 2009 at 1:23 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post reports that not only will MPs probably not be getting a pay rise this year, neither will state sector CEOs.

It is no surprise, that expectations are that overall state sector pay increases will be modest, if at all. The PSA decided to visit another galaxy by exclaiming:

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott warned if civil servants were denied pay increases, there could be an exodus from the sector.

As wages are higher in the state sector than the private sector, I somehow don’t think this exodus will be very large.

What is happening in SSC?

December 8th, 2008 at 8:03 pm by David Farrar

NZPA reports:

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has ordered an independent review of the way the commission handled multimillion dollar contracts with a private consulting firm.

The company Voco has worked on the commission’s $28 million Government Shared Network (GSN), winning contracts reportedly worth $8 million.

That is a fairly high proportion of the cost of the network having gone on consultancy fees. But that is not what caught my interest.

The newspaper also said the SSC’s ICT finance manager David Eagles tried to end the relationship with the company four times but was blocked by the SSC.

It reported Mr Eagles was now on sick leave after an alleged assault at the commission.

But a spokesman for the SSC today told NZPA Mr Eagles was no longer employed there. He refused to say whether he had been sacked, or had quit.

He said the allegations of assault had been promptly investigated.

“The investigation did not establish a basis for any disciplinary action to be taken against an SSC employee as a result of the alleged assault.”

It sounds like there is a very interesting story to be told. I look forward to the independent inquiry and most of all its report.

Background checks on public servants

December 1st, 2008 at 8:46 am by David Farrar

The Dom Post reports that police checks on candidates seeking high profile public sector jobs have become routine since the Mary-Anne Thompson affair, along with verification of qualifications.

This seems pretty sensible to me, and kudos to the State Services Commissioner for initiating it.

One aspect seems to be a bit mistaken though:

He said people currently going for senior positions in the state sector – in ministerial offices at Parliament, for example – were now being carefully looked at.

When I worked in the Beehive I needed both a Police check and a “secret” security clearance. In the PMs Office one needed “top secret” so you got vetted far more rigourously than just a Police check. However these checks did not normally take place until some months after you had started work!

SSC Report into the NZ Immigration Service

October 3rd, 2008 at 12:36 pm by David Farrar

The SSC Report is online here. Here are the conclusions of Commissioner Iain Rennie:

Mr Shanks’ report shows that Mary Anne Thompson was involved with six immigration-related procedures relating to members of her family in 2004 and 2005. Although the investigation finds no evidence that Ms Thompson’s family members were seeking preferential treatment, the report is clear that her involvement resulted in them receiving personal benefits that they would not have normally received if she had not held her position in the Department.

A clear statement of fact that there was preferential treatment.

Ms Thompson’s behaviour was wholly inappropriate on two counts. First, it consistently breached the Department’s clearly-stated requirements for staff to disclose potential personal conflicts to their manager before taking any action. Secondly, the long-standing expectation of State servants, outlined most recently in the Code of Conduct for the State Services, is that they are trustworthy. This includes not acting in a way that may improperly benefit our family or friends or groups in which we have a personal interest.


Overall, the Department did not deal with the issue in a timely or effective fashion up to the end of 2007 and because of ineffective investigations Ms Thompson was consequently dealt with in a manner that was too informal and lenient in relation to the conduct she displayed.

In particular, the actions taken by Dr James Buwalda, the Chief Executive of the Department of Labour until May 2007, were not effective in terms of clearly establishing what was happening and dealing with the conflict of interest. Concerns about visa waivers were first raised with Dr Buwalda, in 2005. The informality of Dr Buwalda’s engagement with Ms Thompson around his concerns at that time led her to consider that he thought the issue was of little consequence.

Now that Departmental CEOs are being paid over $500,000 a year salary, we should be expecting much better from them than this.

If you read the report in detail you see that Dr Buwalda deserves most of the criticism. He had numerous reports coming to him from staff concerned about Thompson’s involvement, and he did little to manage the problem or to assert authority.

Thompson made some serious errors of judgement. She did not seek special favours, but should have been aware that her involvement would create problems. If her CEO had been more onto it, then it might have all been sorted at an earlier stage.

Armstrong on Immigration Service

May 19th, 2008 at 8:11 am by David Farrar

John Armstrong makes the case for a commission of inquiry into the Immigration Service.

Just how bad do things have to get before the Government sets up a full commission of inquiry to independently investigate the mounting allegations of corruption in the Immigration Service?

Despite growing calls for such an inquiry with judicial powers to summon witnesses, the answer is a lot worse yet.

Remember that none of us at all would have any idea about all this, if it were not for some good journalism. For those who missed it, TVNZ also had some further revelations about a $500,000 contract that wasn’t put out to tender and conflicts of interest with staff.

It is understood the Prime Minister, who returned from overseas yesterday, is satisfied that the three separate investigations now being conducted by the Department of Labour, the police and the State Services Commission are sufficient to reassure the public the allegations are being taken extremely seriously.

But the Government is at risk of being tainted as more light is shed on Thompson’s tenure and whether ministers knew what was allegedly going on. It is consequently putting its faith in the department’s recently appointed chief executive, Christopher Blake, wielding his authority and cleaning up the mess in its immigration branch without having to resort to an independent inquiry.

With no disrespect to Mr Blake, but the last time the Department of Labour inquired into NZIS, it was the “lies in unison” scandal and that report was seen as a near total whitewash – the Ombudsman then used his rarely used powers to investigate – uncovering a very different story.

In another Herald story, Audrey Young reveals that a recruitment agency in 2004 is responsible for finding out that Mary-Anne Thompson did not have a PhD, when she applied for DPMC Chief Executive.

It appears she withdrew her application after the then State Services Commission, Michael Wintringham, discussed the issue with her.

Now there are two issues in regard to what Wintringham did. The first is whether he should have ruled her ineligible for any further senior state sector roles, and informed Ministers at the time. Now one can debate whether or not he was right to do nothing – I happen to think he was very wrong, as clearly history has shown us.

But there is another bigger issue regarding Wintringham. While it was his call as to how to handle it at the time, he did have a legal obligation to record in Thompson’s personnel file the issue of the fake doctorate. Anyone with even a minor involvement in HR knows you record absolutely everything as files notes in someone’s file. It would be beyond belief if the most senior CEO in the public sector knew of a fake qualification, and did not record it in her file. If he failed to do so, then the SSC has failed completely as a role model for the public sector. If he did do so, then questions should be asked as to whether the current Commissioner checked Thompson’s file when the allegations regarding her conduct with the Immigration Service became public.

So MPs and journalists should ask whether Wintringham made a file note or not. This is separate to the issue of whether he alerted anyone. The latter issue was within his discretion (even though he used it badly), but if he failed to make a file note, then that is a major credibility issue for the SSC.

The growing cover-ups

May 16th, 2008 at 1:47 pm by David Farrar

When the Mary-Anne Thompson scandal first was exposed (and kudos to One News who did the hard work making this all public), I tended to think it would not reflect much on Ministers, and was a case of inappropriate judgement which had been reprimanded. But the growing evidence is of another shabby little cover-up. Why do I say this? Well let us start with what was said in Parliament yesterday:

Dr the Hon Lockwood Smith: Given those terms of reference, why does the Minister allege that that inquiry was merely a matter relating to the employment of a staff member, when the actual final report of the inquiry was Review of Apparently Unlawful Immigration Decision?

Hon CLAYTON COSGROVE: The matter, as the member states, was in relation to an unlawful immigration decision actioned by an individual or individuals.

Note the stress on being actioned by individuals. This leads us to:

Hon CLAYTON COSGROVE: Well, those members preordain the answer to the question, which speaks volumes about them. The advice that that Minister received was the same advice that I received—that matters related to individual employees are employee matters. He was advised of that. He noted that it was a matter for the chief executive, because there is no employment relationship between Ministers and departments, and that is where it stands. He acted by the book. And I say this: if my predecessor or I had intervened unlawfully against section 33, I bet members $100 that that member would be asking a different series of questions about why Ministers had overreached their authority and breached the law. They cannot have it both ways, and the member knows it.

Dr the Hon Lockwood Smith: Is this Minister telling the House that the then Minister of Immigration, David Cunliffe, knew about the inquiry by David Oughton into unlawful decision-making in his department in April last year, yet never asked for or received a copy of the completed inquiry report, nor asked for a full briefing on that final report? Is that what he is telling the House—that David Cunliffe never asked for a full briefing on that final report?

Hon CLAYTON COSGROVE: No. I admire the member’s ability to twist words. What I am saying is that in April the Minister was briefed, and, latterly, in respect of the report, the Minister, like me, had no right to demand, and was precluded from demanding, a copy of that report or the contents—

Hon Bill English: That’s rubbish.

One has to stand back for a second to think about this level of sophistry. The issues is here that the NZ Immigration Service broke the law, broke its own policies, and made decisions it had no power to make – only the Minister could make. Now of course any such breaking of the law and policies has to have been done by individuals – there is no other way a Department can act except through individuals. But to then claim that the report is off limit to the Minister is ridicolous.

The Dominion Post reports on concerns (which I blogged on Wednesday) that the SIS did not pick up any issues in their vetting.

NZPA reports on the problems within the entire Pacific division:

Last night One News said it had obtained, under the Official Information Act, information showing about 60 people work in the division, and that in three years from 2004, 19 cases of serious offences were proven including theft, bribery and fraud. From the 19 cases, nine people were fired or resigned. Three were referred to police.

I suppose these are all employment issues also, which means nothing to do with the Minister.

But get this little gem, also from NZPA quoting Mary-Anne’s lawyer:

Ms Aikman said it appeared the SSC had known about allegations against Ms Thompson for four years but nothing was ever said.

Four years? Please tell me you are kidding.

I am not sure the problems in the Immigration Service can be fixed from within. When you consider the lies in unison scandal (which the parent Department also tried to whitewash), I think a Commission of Inquiry may now be needed.

An excellent appointment

April 29th, 2008 at 10:15 am by David Farrar

The Government announced yesterday that Iain Rennie has been appointed State Services Commissioner.

I regard this as an excellent appointment. Rennie is held in high regard in Wellington, and is a straight shooter. I can’t think of many people who would have a bad word to say about him. People who have worked with him also say he is very affable and approachable.

His appointment was recommended unanimously by a panel of Jim Bolger, Dame Margaret Bazley, Stan Rodger and David Parker. I think it was wise to not just have it done by the Minister. Hell, we may have ended up with Mike Williams as State Services Commissioner then 🙂