After the Christchurch earthquake the mandarins who run our public service felt they had learnt a big lesson.

Immediately after the February 22, 2011 quake, , the heads of crown entities rushed to Christchurch.

What they found was more like the aftermath of a war.

There were over 3000 public servants based in the city but many were shell shocked. 

Government buildings in the city, particularly the courts and the police station, could not be entered.

The only way the public service chiefs could respond was, in the words of the former State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, “to throw away the rulebook.”

Court hearings were held on marae, schools merged and above all, the public service chiefs empowered their staff to do whatever was necessary to speed the recovery.

A 2012 Cabinet Paper, prepared for the National Government, noted that the Canterbury earthquakes provided a ‘perfect storm’ for innovation; the status quo was not an option.”

The paper was optimistic that what had been learned in Christchurch could be the start of a revolution within the New Zealand public service.

“Christchurch was about ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘innovation by necessity’” it said.


“The challenge now is to create a seismic shift in innovation activity across the State Services without the context of a crisis.”

The Key/English Government added urgency to this with its embrace of social investment which required that social agencies not only show a new policy would achieve specified outcomes but how other agencies would share the same objectives.

But the reality was that the high hopes after Christchurch soon became clogged up with red tape and the innate conservatism and propensity to protect patches which marks the public service.

Ministers in the new Labour Government were surprised to find how much “pushback” they got from public servants when they tried to implement the new policies they had been voted in on.

Shane Jones was particularly frustrated with resistance to his regional economic development initiatives.

At the same time, over the past year, Grant Robertson has been firming up his plans for the first “wellbeing” budget next year.

This builds on social investment but takes it a lot further.

In Robertson’s words, it will force crown entities to focus on outcomes rather than outputs.

Speaking at the pre-Christmas Budget Policy Statement media briefing he said: ““All Ministers and agencies will be collectively responsible for delivering on the priorities.

“For the first time, they are being tasked with developing their own Budget bids through the lens of the priorities.

“They are being asked to work together, across portfolios, on initiatives that will deliver the outcomes identified by the priorities.”

And to achieve this, Robertson and State Services Minister Chris Hipkins, have returned to the lessons learned in Christchurch about getting public servants to work together except that this time, they are planning to legislate to ensure it does not only happen but stays happening.

The upshot is that Hipkins will this year preside over the biggest shakeup of the New Zealand public service since the State Sector Act of 1988.

The process has already begun with a massive consultation exercise with public servants.

“The idea around here is that basically we want more senior level leadership working collaboratively in the public service

“ So rather than each chief executive running their own siloed ship they’re actually kind of working more as a collective.”

But that idea of public servants working more as a collective will filter well down the ranks.

Hipkins cites Auckland Airport where a number of Government agencies; MPI, Customs and Immigration all interact with incoming passengers.

“There’s no ability for them to have a joint venture to actually run as one coherent whole,” he said.

“They all do it separately.

“Actually if you could run a proper joint venture you could have an integrated passenger experience, an integrated airline experience and it’s going to make it a heck of a lot more efficient and actually more t customer friendly.”

There are other oddities in the public service; the inability of different entities IT systems to work together; the fact that different entities define regions differently and so on.

But one of the most dramatic consequences of the 1988 Act was that the old idea of the public service disappeared. It even changed its name to the “state sector” and employees were employed by departments rather than the service as a whole.

“If you are a person working in the public service and you’re moving from one job in one government department to another job in another government department you’re basically leaving your job and starting another job even if the job is the same just at a different place.

“We want to be able to help people move around.

“So you know think about when you if you leave education to go to work in social development you’re effectively starting a whole new job.

“Whereas actually, we want to be able to say Oh fine you’re still part of the public service you’re moving around.”

But take this argument to its logical extent, as Hipkins more or less proposed, and you end up with a cadre of public service chiefs who move from one CEO’s position to another.

In a way, he has already been trumped on this by State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, who shuffled five public service CEOs around to new jobs in one move last June.

The question now though is whether or not to legislate for a senior public service cadre.

Hipkins admits that reaction to this idea has been “mixed.”

“There is still there is a question of what form does that take. “”

“We’re kind of getting to it now the way the public service chief executives are operating.

“They meet regularly together they’re operating more as a leadership unit in addition to their responsibilities for running their own agencies.

“Many of them have got additional responsibilities so their chief executive of Internal Affairs, for example, has a government digital services mandate across the whole of the public service.

“So each of the chief executives is helping to lead some kind of sector-wide focus.

” The question is do you formalise that in a way, by making them say a public sector board or do you leave it to the kind of slightly more fluid and informal arrangements that we’ve got now. “

Then there are the arcane hierarchies and pecking orders that pervade the public service.

“If you call anything a ministry then immediately it has to have a chief executive even if it’s a small ministry.

“And so the question is whether there  Is there a better way of thinking about those things so that you could still have your kind of standalone units within a broader whole.

“We’re looking at how do you configure the public service in that it can just be a bit more nimble and able to reconfigure without this huge structural impediment that comes with that. “

And another earthquake, the Kaikoura one, prompted a change in Wellington.

With several key entities — Statistics and Defence for a start — unable to occupy their buildings there began a move to have entities share premises.

Hipkins suggests that could be a way to enable cross-agency teams to work together more efficiently.

But the next significant impetus for change will be the Well Being Budget.

“Our task is to line government up behind the Well Being priorities, and that means reconfiguring the way we operate.

“The public service is going to be required to take a really high-level thing if we want to reduce the prison population for example.

“Actually that involves education involves health particularly around mental health it involves welfare it involves job employment all that stuff; housing all of that stuff is required to reduce the prison population.

“And so if that’s the goal you’ve got to get everyone working together to make it happen.”

There is one final and possibly controversial element to Hipkins’ change programme, and that is the reinstatement of the idea that the public sector is a “public service” not a “state service.”

Iain Rennie has argued that it is now possible for the Government to move beyond the pragmatic economic measures that were emphasised at the time of the State Sector Act which ultimately was about bringing efficiency to the public service.

His successor, Peter Hughes, has argued that the phrase “public service” means exactly what it says and that the role of public servants is to serve and that should mean that they don’t get the high salaries that some have received in recent years.

Hipkins says his legislation, which he hopes to introduce in the second half of the year, will be really clear about the missions and the goals of the public service. That will include emphasising that it has a constitutional role and that it extends beyond the government of the day.

In a way, much of what is being proposed, is a sophisticated version of the old public service where someone could join one department and end up working in another two or three before becoming CEO of a fourth.

But the final proof will be whether the spirit of Christchurch can persist and the public service focuses on results rather than processes.