Public service balanced or merely on a knife edge?

Our friend Mike Jowsey says in comments: “It is headed for a total government of NZ by Maori. Think of Fiji or Rhodesia.” A scant three hours earlier, I received Colin James’s Management Magazine column for September 2011, which I reproduce below. The synchronicity of topics is unmistakable and James’ optimism clear. I take heart from the contrast with Mike’s scepticism.
There’s great concern for the position of Maori in society, with the majority responsible for filling the prisons, the dole queues and many of the hospital beds. Courageous, genuinely transformative interventions — and not merely feel-good, hand-holding sops to convention — are called for to let them restore their dignity and again earn an honest living. Whether this happens with the children or the adults, we’re looking at a lead time of 20 to 50 years, so we need to get started.
It concerns me to hear Muriel Newman tell us “many New Zealanders [are] completely unaware of what is really going on.” For she’s talking about me — I don’t know about you.
This is no off-topic digression either, for the link with global warming is through public policy decision-making. If we don’t know, or we disagree with, how public decisions get made, we must inform ourselves and agitate for improvement.
I want to know what Muriel is talking about. A rigorous examination seems called for. – Richard T

A radical departs the public service still sparking

Peter Hughes moves on after 10 years at the top of the Ministry of Social Development at the end of September. He takes with him — to the academic School of Government and some other appointments — his pre-eminent reputation as a chief executive. And he’s still pushing change.

The Maori party reckons whanau ora a revolutionary social policy initiative. But Hughes already had established the base from which whanau ora’s aim of a wraparound service could be developed: Community Link centres.

Peter Hughes

There will be 80 Community Link centres by end-2011 and 130 by end-2012. The aim is to transform the benefit and social assistance systems so they address in one place a range of people’s needs supplied by several services. They replace Work and Income centres which essentially dole out benefits and get people work-ready and into work.

Building on that, Hughes wants to transform the whole public service model.

The public service was transformed in 1912 from an outfit susceptible to crony appointments to a merit-based, professional service. It was transformed again in the late 1980s-early 1990s when then-modern management techniques were imported, focusing on outputs — things agencies did — instead of inputs — things agencies used — handing to chief executives managers control of their staffs, budgets and processes and introducing accrual accounting and fiscal transparency.

Some managers took their new freedoms seriously, Hughes told an Institute of Public Administration seminar in July: one built his own regional IT system, another filled a warehouse with office furniture and onsold it at a profit and a third built two buildings for the same function.

Overall, this “new public management”, as some called it, delivered much greater efficiency and focused much more directly on “clients” — those getting the service. There was also innovation. But agencies became “siloed” from each other, which from the mid-1990s prompted much talk — but not much realisation — of “joined-up government”.


This is an adopted article.

Hughes wants a third transformation — from producing outputs to achieving outcomes, with services integrated horizontally. But whereas 1912 and the 1980s were revolutions — radical changes from what went before — he sees the next transformation as evolution, building on the post-1980s efficiency gains to improve effectiveness.

This, he says, requires a shift in mentality from management to leadership. A tall order for risk-averse public servants.

Community Link centres aim not just to enable users to get all services they need in one place (outputs) but to “help people get on and be successful” — to be healthy, get educated, get well housed and get independent through working for an income (outcomes).

Here’s the jargon: “underlying causes, not service symptoms”, “a virtual organisation around each individual or family”, a “co-production” to help people “take responsibility for their lives”. So, link Community Link with courts, doctors and teachers.

There is a wide range of publics and services, of which social services are only one. So Hughes suggests a range of options: loose clusters, tight mandated clusters, joint ventures, semi-structural integration and full structural integration.

And there are testing questions. Who is accountable for what? How are outcomes specified so they can be measured and evaluated and are achievable and achieved? Through the past 20 years outcomes have often been either ultra-high-level and irrelevant or little more than glorified outputs and outputs little more than glorified inputs. Delivering outputs discharges public servants’ responsibilities safely and is risk-free, even when little is achieved.

Moving to the “outcomes” level is hard and risky stuff — and has to be done with fickle masters hanging over the fence needing good media.

Hughes is undeterred. He wants something truly radical: to “unlock a huge amount of human potential and creativity, apply this to some of the real issues” and in the process “again lead the world in public management system reform”.

Is he talking about the public service here? Time to move on.

Colin James, Synapsis Ltd, P.O. Box 9494, Wellington 6141.
Ph (64)-4-384-7030, Mobile (64)-21-438-434, Fax (64)-4-384-9175.

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One Thought on “Public service balanced or merely on a knife edge?

  1. Mike Jowsey on 06/09/2011 at 8:10 am said:

    It’s refreshing to see such a holistic and distributed approach. The paradigm change from outputs to outcomes is huge. My adult daughter is consulting to the Australian government on combined services for multi-morbidity patients (her Phd is in medical anthropology), where traditionally each patient is attended by a raft of specialists, health care workers, social support agencies, welfare agencies and so on. Because each agency is focused on one area only, not only does the patient spend a lot of time getting around them all, often the various treatments conflict, and other aspects of the patient’s life which impact on his/her health are missed. It’s a big challenge for all concerned. The concept of outcomes versus outputs is helpful.

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