The Government Administration Committee meeting yesterday to consider the Public Service Estimates.

Parliament’s new “Scrutiny” process, which is supposed to allow Select Committees to interrogate Ministers and officials in much more depth, has got off to a rocky start.

Yesterday was the first day of “Scrutiny Week” which is supposed to see the Government grilled on how it spends taxpayers’ money and what it is trying to do.

But that lofty aim will always run hard against the day-to-day politics of Parliament.

The Standing Orders Committee, which proposed the idea last year, recognised that Parliament was a political environment.

“It could never be otherwise in a lively, competitive democracy,” it said.

But it went on.

“We recognise that scrutiny has a political dimension to it, particularly when the decisions and actions of Ministers are being scrutinised.

“We hope, however, that in articulating the purpose of scrutiny, we can contribute to a shared sense of purpose among members in deeper scrutiny of public administration and governance generally. “

However, when State Services Minister Nicola Willis appeared before the Government Administration Committee, a substantial chunk of the questioning was exactly the kind of partisan political point-scoring that the new process was supposed to avoid.

Incredibly, not one member of the Committee asked Willis why no new Public Service Commissioner had yet been appointed, even though the new Government knew from the day it was elected that the last Commissioner, Peter Hughes, would retire at the end of February.

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There were no questions about the highly relevant issue of data privacy in the public service, no questions about the policy on the use of Te Reo, no questions about the Auditor General’s ongoing concerns about the integrity of the public service and procurement, and so on.

Instead, Labour MP Ayesha Verrall set the tone with a series of detailed questions about cuts to the Department of Internal Affairs’s digital safety teams.

Not unreasonably, Willis protested that if Verrall had questions about a specific savings proposal and its impact on a specific agency, she should ask the specific Minister.

“I’m here in my capacity as Minister for the Public Service,” she said.

Several more detailed questions from Verrall later, National Upper Harbour MP, Cameron Brewer raised a point of order.

“Are we looking at vote; The Public Service Commission, which is a $57 million vote with the Minister here as Minister for the Public Service. Or are we looking at everything in the Budget,” he asked.

Perhaps not surprisingly but perhaps also unhelpfully, the committee chair, Labour’s Nelson MP Rachel Boyack, ruled in favour of Verrall’s line of questioning.

“We are looking at the public service and within that public service capability, is in my view, within order,” she said.

“And also, and I’ve made these comments before as chair of this Committee, that fits with this Committee’s approach under previous chairs, including National Party chairs that matters that relate to the public service capability are in order.

“So, I’m allowing the questions.”

Whether what happened in previous sessions of the Committee was relevant when it was yesterday inaugurating a new process was questionable.

But if Verrall ignored the bigger picture, National MP Tom Rutherford ignored public service issues altogether and asked questions of Willis much more relevant to her role as Finance Minister.

“How did you protect frontline services in this budget that you’ve just delivered?” he asked.

Willis treated this interrogative equivalent of a ball on the leg side as a gift.

“Great question,” she said.

“Entering into the Budget, our focus was actually on what frontline services require additional resourcing in order to be delivered effectively.

“And what that meant was that we prioritised dollars towards this.”

With that, she then set out in exactly the same detail that she had baulked at providing Verrall with a list of frontline services in the Police and in the education vote, which had been preserved in the Budget.

POLITIK Government Administration Committee chair, Labour Nelson MP, Rachel Boyack

 Rutherford, the MP for the Bay of Plenty, then wanted to know how the 500 extra Police officers hired to protect frontline services would impact the community.

Willis obliquely reminded the MP that as Minister of State Services, she didn’t actually have any responsibility for the Police, who are separate from the Public Service Commission.

“The member, similar to that previous member, is asking me to delve into another minister’s specific responsibilities,” she said.

But that didn’t stop her.

“What I can tell you about the decision to resource 500 additional frontline forces is that that is done with a clear intention that those officers be visible and present in our communities.

“Because what we hear from New Zealanders is that actually, even just the presence of a police officer on the ground in a local community on a busy city street is reassuring in itself and can be a deterrent to crime.”

And so the questioning went until the Committee had used nearly half of the 60 minutes it had allocated to the Public Service Commission.

Then National Horowhenua MP Tim Costley asked a fundamental question.

What was the measure of success for the public service? 

“We’ve got to shut the page on this idea that you measure results by how much you spend or how many people you hire,” she said.

“That’s not the experience that New Zealanders have.

“And so that’s why we have set government service targets.

“We have set very specific targets that are objective and measurable and that we intend to report against transparently.”

Finally, the Committee got around to one of the key issues facing the public service.

Maybe inspired by Costley, NZ First MP Jamie Arbuckle asked how the Minister saw the functions of the Public Service Commission in the light of the cutbacks.

“As a central agency, it sets a clear direction for the rest of the public service, and it has a crucial role in chief executive appointments and a coordinating role,” Willis said.

Verrall then returned with another detour, this time over plans to manage any future pandemic, but finally got to the core of National’s public service policies.

“The estimates documents refer to performance pay for chief executives,” she said.

“I cannot find a press release from yourself on the matter.

“So perhaps you’d like to describe the scope of your initiatives on performance pay; who is included in it? Are Crown agencies also included, as it just says, and how do you intend for that to be implemented?”

POLITIK (From left) Deputy Public Service Commissioner, Rebecca Kitteridge; State Services Minister, Nicola Willis and Acting Public Service Commissioner Heather Baggott

Willis confirmed that the Government intended to introduce performance pay for chief executives.

“This was a policy that we in the National Party campaigned on,” she said.

“Where public servants in those leadership roles deliver significant improvements in the outcomes they’re delivering to New Zealanders, then that will be worthy of additional performance payments.

“We’re still developing that policy. No decisions have been made by the cabinet.

“However, I would note that the latest advice I’ve received is that public service leaders, on average, receive 50 to 60% of the pay of their private sector counterparts.

“ I don’t think that public servant leaders anticipate going into those roles is  a get-rich-quick scheme.

“In fact, many of them are driven by a desire to serve.

“But I do think it’s important that we embed a culture where we ensure that we are incentivising performance.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the rhetoric that came from National during the election campaign, Willis readily conceded that public service chief executives’ pay had fallen behind.

“Chief executive’s pay increases have tracked well below wage increases more generally across New Zealand and have tracked below the rate of inflation,” she said.

Costley then asked whether the Minister was simply trying to raise chief executives’ pay or whether she was trying to improve their performance by holding them accountable.

“Our job is to ensure that as custodians of public money, we are driving performance for that money; we are driving value for the expenditure that we conduct,” she said.

“And so that requires not only government ministers to seek clear targets and clear policy directions and have clear leadership, but it also requires chief executives to carry that through and to lead dynamic, innovative, results-focused organisations.”

And that is what Scrutiny Week is supposed to be all about determining whether individual agencies are dynamic, innovative, results-focused organisations.

Hopefully, as the week unfolds,  the partisan points scoring will not get in the way of answering those questions.