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Chapter 2: The Public Service Act 1912 and Robertson 1912-1920

Today’s Public Service emerged in 1912, at a time of industrial unrest and social upheaval. Breakthrough technologies such as radio broadcasting and silent cinema were gaining attention. On 6 July 1912, the Liberals were defeated after 22 years in power, and William Massey’s Reform Party took office four days later.

On 27 August, Herdman, as Attorney General and Justice Minister in the new administration, introduced a Public Service Bill into Parliament, a move that would be called ‘the chief fruit of the Reform Government’s first session’. 7 Herdman based it on a 1911 Private Members’ Bill calling for an end to political patronage and emphasising efficient management of public finances.

Eight days later, the Hunt Commission’s report was published. The Act that finally passed into law on 7 November 1912 was in line with many of Hunt’s recommendations: changes to the way officers in the Public Service were hired, fired and graded; promotion on the basis of merit, and the setting up of an independent body to appoint staff.

But Herdman rejected Hunt’s idea of a board with oversight of departments and, crucially, answerable to Cabinet. Instead the Act set up a Public Service Commission (PSC) reporting to Parliament and headed by a single commissioner.

Former Liberal premier Sir Joseph Ward warned that this individual would be ‘above the Parliament, and above the people, and above the government…[with] the destinies of the whole Public Service… under his sole and uncontrolled authority’. 8 Christchurch North MP Leonard Isitt argued Ministers would now have ‘no word in the appointment of the minnows, but should appoint the whale and have the ear of the whale’. 9

In the end, the 1912 Act enshrined a professional, politically neutral, career civil (later public) service based on strict and systematised rules and regulations. A Public Service Commissioner, assisted by two assistant commissioners, would hereafter manage all government employment. ‘Political’ and ‘administrative’ functions were to be kept strictly apart.

From 1 January 1913, Donald Robertson, former head of the Postal and Telegraph Department, set up the PSC, with a staff of eleven. An early task was assigning all employees to one of four divisions – administrative, professional, clerical and general. The entire service was to be regraded every five years, with officers free to appeal against their classification to a body which included a staff representative. At the time permanent staff numbers totalled 4918.

During his tenure, Robertson would introduce a series of processes surrounding staff employment that would largely remain in place for 75 years, setting in place the culture of the Public Service. By 1913, he had formally recognised employee groups like the PSA. Other efforts to reform departmental efficiency, to the point of wholesale amalgamation, brought him into conflict with permanent heads.

Robertson was an autocrat who saw the service as an essentially male bastion. After 1913, women were explicitly not allowed to take the Public Service Entrance exams, could only take up shorthand and typing jobs, and usually had to resign when they got married.

The Commissioner’s stance on the place of women in the service drew strong reactions from female officers. In 1914, the issue was taken up at the PSA conference, which endorsed a remit ‘that female employees of equal competence with male employees receive equal treatment as to pay and privileges’. In a subsequent exchange, Robertson expressed grave doubts as to whether women could ‘take charge of anything’ and asked aloud ‘Can you put women in charge of men?’ 10

The advent of World War One and staff shortages caused by more than 3000 enlistments brought fresh pressures on the service. In 1918, for example, Ministers insisted they – not public servants – administer a new Repatriation Agency for discharged servicemen. It exemplified the difficult line commissioners like Robertson were constantly having to navigate.

7:  Alan Henderson, The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission, Wellington, 1990, pp 53.

8:  New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol 161, p 644.

9:  New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol 161, p 650.

10:  Bert Roth, Remedy for present evils: a history of the New Zealand Public Service from 1890, Wellington, 1987, pp 42.

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