Should public service ceos be able to be sacked at will?


Perhaps we should thank former Ministry of Education head Lesley Longstone for only stinging taxpayers $425,000 as a severance package.

Yes it is a lot of money, especially to onlookers on the minimum wage, the average wage or even anyone outside the top echelons of pay packets.

Given the circumstances of her departure – just over a year into a five-year term and as a result of a clash of personalities with her minister – she could have asked for more. …

So given that, and the public revulsion at such pay-outs, it is time to look again at how those contracts are written.

Setting aside for now the fact it would have been cheaper all round (and arguably fairer) to have shifted Parata, rather than Longstone, it’s time to dispense with the fiction that chief executives are not on grace and favour contracts – essentially at the behest of their minister.

The Longstone example makes it as clear as day that a CEO cannot stay on if they fall out badly with their minister. But the fiction forces the SSC to dance on the head of a pin over the reason why they go, and the payouts that follow are eye-watering to most people.

It is true that if a Minister loses confidence in a CEO, then one of them has to go. And in a democracy it is the civil servant, not the Minister.

There are strong arguments that can be advanced about the quality of chief executives that might be recruited, and state sector purists will choke into their lattes at any move away from the notional independent public servant.

But there are precedents. Press secretaries and political advisers in politicians’ offices are on the public payroll but are on so-called “events-based contracts”. The “events” are essentially the continuation of the MP or minister in that office but they also include a clear parting of the ways between a minister and a press secretary. Payouts are modest. …

Acknowledging – and embracing – the reality that senior public servants are to all intents and purposes there at the will of their minister is an argument that has some resonance among some MPs too, but from a different perspective.

As they see it, politicians are elected and they should expect their decisions to be implemented. Something akin to an “events-based” chief executive could eliminate deliberate attempts to frustrate the will of their minister or the Cabinet.

I can see the attraction of an events based contract for CEOs, but there is a reason I think they would do more harm than good.

They would make it too easy for a Minister to dispense with a CEO. You only want the CEO to go if absolutely necessary. And as part of that, you actually want the departure of a CEO to cause political pain for a Government – which a payout causes.

If you had a clause that just allows a CEO to be sacked with three months notice, then I think you’d see a far higher turnover of CEOs – and I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing.

I don’t like paying $425,000 out for premature termination of a contract. But education is a $10 billion budget. If we have to pay out 0.05% of the budget to get a Ministerial-CEO relationship that works, then it is worth it. Of course some will argue the wrong person went – but Ministers are accountable through elections, and National will be judged in 2014 on how it has done overall.

So what is the happy compromise that would cut back on payouts by establishing events-based contracts; acknowledge the “political” nature of some public service roles – and the need to have someone driving hard to implement government policy; but maintain a flow of contestable advice?

One option would be to insist on a competence-based (not purely political) selection process where the nominee is examined by a select committee, much as the United States does with its Senate confirmation hearings.

That would allow the government to win the day, but in the process unearth incompetence and expose any skeletons to the public eye.

I’m not sure select committee hearings would un-earth any incompetence.

If we were to have select committee hearings for government CEOs then we should go the whole hog of the US model where the Government of the day appoints the entire senior management of the government departments. Of course that has some drawbacks also!

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