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Chapter 9: Moving on: 1998-2012

As a new century approached, Hunn’s replacement, career civil servant Michael Wintringham, again raised questions about the impact on the public sector of 15 years of almost continuous change. Concluding the workforce was ‘generally more efficient and responsive’, he warned of the risks to productivity and staff morale of what he called a ‘restructuring culture’. 46

Women now dominated the ranks of State servants, but few were pitching for the top jobs. The first woman chief executive was appointed in 1984, but numbers since had remained tiny. In 1998, Wintringham appointed Christine Rankin to head the new department of Work and Income. Three years later, Rankin unsuccessfully sued him after he chose not to reappoint her for not meeting performance standards.

Reappointed by the administration of Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2001, Wintringham’s role was widened to embrace standards of integrity and conduct. As commissioner, he also gained fresh management and monitoring powers over Crown entities. Wintringham pushed hard for the sector to consolidate as an attractive and innovative employer.

The accountability reforms continued. A 2001 Review of the Centre led to purchase agreements being scrapped in favour of Statements of Intent (SOIs), setting out departmental strategic directions. A Managing for Outcomes report in 2004 sounded a call for greater collaboration across agencies, one that still echoes today.

The Clark administration had grown concerned by what it saw as a critical weakening of Public Service capacity, with heavy use of outside consultants to perform core tasks. By 2003, the State workforce stood at 34,445, a slight reduction on 1993 levels, and would continue rising for the next eight years.

Mark Prebble, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), replaced Wintringham in 2004. An important part of his legacy would be launching what he termed development goals for State Services, the first of which reinforced the call for the sector to be seen as a good employer.

Other goals pressed the need to harness information technology, to see quality of service from the public’s point of view, and to actively uphold standards and conduct.

As part of this activity, Prebble commissioned a survey which indicated that a third of State servants had witnessed misconduct in the workplace. A revamped code of conduct required staff to be fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy.

In 2008, Prebble’s deputy Iain Rennie replaced him as commissioner, a job that today embraces the State Services and agencies in the wider State sector.

During eight years of the Clark administration, numbers of State servants had swelled to 45,934, based on an average annual increase of 5.5 percent or 1987 employees per year.

As Rennie, a career public servant, settled into the role, the administration of Prime Minister John Key took office in the teeth of a global financial crisis. Like his conservative predecessor William Massey almost a century earlier, John Key entered office with an explicit agenda to boost efficiency and economy in the State Services. The core government administration was capped at 38,859 positions.

As the Key administration ended its first term in office, more than 2500 State jobs had disappeared. The SSC workforce itself halved during this time, as functions such as information technology and training were transferred elsewhere. The commission swapped the spacious Molesworth Street head office it had occupied for a quarter of a century, for two floors in the Reserve Bank building opposite The Treasury.

Change continues to affect the public sector. The Key administration’s 2011 election year budget called for State cuts totalling almost $1 billion over three years. Following its re-election, the administration lowered the cap on core government administration to 36,475 positions.

As head of a smaller, leaner State sector, Rennie is working to ensure State servants remain highly accountable, providing better service to the people who pay their wages. A quarterly SSC survey Kiwis Count continued to show New Zealanders were satisfied with services received from the sector.

In recent years, Rennie has galvanised departments to join forces on specific and ambitious priorities government has set for the next three to five years. Included are complex problems such as reducing long term welfare dependency, supporting vulnerable children, boosting skills and employment, reducing crime and improving interaction with government.

Another vital part of Rennie’s job is overseeing performance improvement reviews. These exercises help chief executives sharpen up the performance of their agencies, and assess how well they are delivering both government priorities and core business. Agencies learn exactly where they need to do better, and what they have to do to achieve it.

The State Services Commission (SSC), the Treasury, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) are the Corporate Centre for New Zealand’s State sector. This involves bringing together the expertise of three critical central agencies to drive improved State sector performance – to provide better public services. The Corporate Centre also shares accountability for delivery.

A tumultuous century after passage of the Public Service Act, a slimmed down commission is still in the State sector ‘hot seat’, driving the ceaseless quest for efficiency right across the business. As Rennie says, ‘the SSC is getting smaller, but the expectations on us are not’. 47

46:  Dominion, 22 October 1998.

47:  Dominion Post, 20 March 2009.

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