Cover Story: State Sector Shake Up - Canterbury Quakes Drive Change; the Christchurch Earthquakes Have Boosted Government Resolve to Drive through the Most Radical Overhaul of New Zealand Public Sector Management in at Least 20 Years. Could Management Innovation Finally Flourish in the Corridors of Power?

Article excerpt

Byline: Reg Birchfield

Public sector agencies such as Inland Revenue and the Ministries of Justice and Social Development may be pushed to cut through patch-protection, break down silos and regroup around some big shared goals. It's part of a government initiative which challenges all public sector agencies' targets, structures, cultures, incentives, accountabilities and measurements.

A clutch of compelling case studies of so called "innovative" public service responses to the organisational chaos that stuck Canterbury after its devastating September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes is effectively validating the Government's plans to push through its Better Public Services (BPS) programme.

BPS is designed to introduce wide-ranging public sector management reforms on a scale not seen in New Zealand since the late 1980s and early '90s. "A better-performing public sector is central to what we will be doing as a Government over the next three years," Prime Minister John Key told the Auckland Chamber of Commerce when he announced his BPS strategy on March 15.

And events in Christchurch have seemingly strengthened his hand. Canterbury's public sector responses to disrupted essential services illustrate what can happen when public servants are forced, this time through disaster response, to think outside the square and work more cooperatively with each other and with the private sector.

Eight carefully chosen case studies have provided so much grist to Key's reform mill that last month Cabinet agreed to cement in some of these Canterbury-initiated practice changes on a permanent basis and to roll some of them out nationwide.

The Government's public sector reform blueprint was drafted by the Better Public Services Advisory group, an eight-member public and private sector think panel, set up last year to help design a public service fit for 21st century purpose.

New Zealand's state sector had, they said, an "enviable" international reputation and was generally "well-regarded" at home, but the Government's commitment to reform had diminished in recent years, just when public management needed to keep up with a rapidly changing world. "The role of the state must be progressively redefined," the Advisory Group's report said. The system had not, therefore, been very effective in delivering improved social, environmental and economic outcomes.

New Zealand's public sector accounts for almost a quarter of the nation's economy. It therefore needed to "become more innovative, efficient and focused" on delivering what New Zealanders want and expect, said Key when he announced his BPS initiative. He simultaneously revealed the establishment of a new super Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment by integrating the ministries of Economic Development, Labour, Science and Innovation, and Building and Housing.

The "business-facing" department would, under the command of his fourth-ranking Cabinet minister Steven Joyce, strengthen the public service's ability to work on business policy, regulation and engagement, said Key. The plethora of departmental silos delivered by the radical public sector reforms of the 1980s' Labour government would go and departments will, in future, work together more, he added.

Government agencies will have to contest the provision of some services; be required to more aggressively deploy new digital technologies; collect, use and publish better performance information; and centralise some capital spending, including accommodation.

None of the 10 challenges set out in Key's programme needed ratification. They were a political fait accompli. But the Canterbury case studies have galvanised the argument for change, within the public service and, obviously, the Canterbury business community. Even the state union, the 55,000 strong PSA, accepts a majority of the proposed changes, though with some reservations. …