Do we need a State Services Commission?

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 < 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 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.

Comments (13)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment

%d bloggers like this: