Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Changes in Structural Design in the New Zealand Social Services Sector

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Changes in Structural Design in the New Zealand Social Services Sector

Article excerpt


Reform and reorganisation of the New Zealand public sector have been ongoing since the 1980s, resulting in changes to the structural design of public sector agencies. The belief that providers of services, bureaucrats and professionals were capturing the policy process influenced the separation of policy ministries from operational departments. The impact of those changes on the social sector throughout the 1990s was profound. Ministers expressed concerns about the quality of the policy advice they were receiving. The initiatives developed in the Ministry of Social Policy encountered implementation difficulties, which meant that unspent funding for social policy initiatives was carried forward from year to year. After 1999 a Labour-led government adopted an approach aimed at reunifying the social sector and addressing the problems of fragmentation and "siloisation", which were identified in the Review of the Centre by the Ministerial Advisory Group. The result has been a re-coupling of policy and operational agencies across the social services sector, with the Ministry of Social Development now the largest government department.


The structural changes that have taken place under the public sector reform process in New Zealand are linked to changes that have taken place worldwide to modernise the public sector and improve its performance. In New Zealand the reform process involved the removal of business functions from the public sector to create state-owned enterprises, and a review of the operations of the core public sector to establish a clear focus for government agencies.

This paper focuses on the successive changes that have occurred in the structure of social service departments and the logic behind the changes that have taken place under different governments since the initial separation of policy ministries and operational departments. The changes reflect the perspectives of the various governments and key ministers within those governments. The decoupling of policy and operations in the social sector that went on during the 1990s resulted in concerns about the quality of the policy advice the Government was receiving and the problems that were becoming apparent with the implementation of policy initiatives.


The most appropriate environment for the development of robust social policy has exercised governments, ministers, academics and government agencies over the years. These issues were considered by the New Zealand Planning Council (2) in their 1982 report Who Makes Social Policy? At that time, the Planning Council had been accused of giving more weight to economic rather than to social issues. The report identified the Cabinet Committee on Family and Social Affairs as having the function of shaping social policy at the highest level. Although the Planning Council's report reviewed the other participants in the development of social policy, its comments on the overall organisation of policy development are most relevant to the situation in the 21st century.

The report noted that there was a "compartmentalised approach" to social policy and that competition between departments, and defensive attitudes, underlay the very fragmented approach to social planning in New Zealand. Greater interdepartmental cooperation in the exchange of information and in research efforts, which would recognise the interrelationships and interdependence, was suggested. The report's conclusion addressed structural issues and noted that attempts in the past to improve coordination between departments had gone as far as amalgamating departments or parts of departments, but then asked "would any improvement be gained from creating a joint Health-Education-Social Welfare department?" (New Zealand Planning Council 1982:48). A more coordinated approach was seen as being essential for the development of social policy over the longer term. This message was subsequently echoed in the Review of the Centre (2001) report. …

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