Sir Maarten Wevers and Graham Scott at the conference yesterday

Environment Minister David Parker yesterday fired Rob Campbell as chair of the Environment Protection Authority because Parker claimed he had breached the public service code of conduct over impartiality.

The NZ Herald published a response to an official information request which showed that both Ayesha Verrall and Larker had acted on advice from Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes when they fired Campbell.

Hughes (with backing from Chris Hipkins when he was State Services Minister)  has put a big emphasis on enhancing the integrity of the public service.

But what we have heard less about is whether the public service is effective.

Two doyens of our public service yesterday told an economics conference at Waikato University that there were serious problems.

POLITIK Graham Scott

The speakers were former diplomat and Chief Executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Sir Maarten Wevers and the former Treasury Secretary who presided over the Rogernomics reforms in the 80s, Graham Scott.

Scott lamented the lack of strong debate within departments and the tendency to groupthink.

“There’s a risk of groupthink, which I see some of around the public service,” he said.

“There seems to be a lack of creative tension.

“People are so busy being polite to each other they don’t argue much anymore, it seems.

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“Whereas the public service I remember was actually a pretty hard school, and that had its downsides.

“But you didn’t go into a meeting if you hadn’t done your homework, or if you did, you didn’t say anything.

“There’s been a loss of a kind of scepticism.”

Scott said that one of the consequences of this was that there was a lack of careful institutional analysis about how to deliver services, “which has been crippling for the present government, in my view.”

He said one reason for this was there was a natural bias in the central government towards centralisation.

“It’s in the incentives,” he said.

“Some people say that’s politicisation, but for me, as an economist, I say, well, people are employed by the public sector, and they’re working for ministers who are ambitious to improve their careers and so on.

“There’s a tendency for this whole thing to get bigger and bigger because every solution looks like another opportunity to accrete something.

“I think the centralisation has gone far too far in education and in the public service as well and is damaging some very successful collaborations in health. “

Wevers said the public service had “got off the boil.”

“It’s time to get things back on the boil,” he said.

“For my mind, I think there’s been a reduction of focus.

“I think the butter has been spread too thinly, that there’s been a lack of focus on the things that really matter, the ones that would have big multiplier effects, and I think education and immigration are two that have already come up.

“I think there’s a lack of urgency in the way in which a lot of the public sector agencies respond to changes in circumstances.”

POLITIK Sir Maarten Wevers

Wevers headed the DPMC during the Canterbury earthquakes. He contrasted that with the experience of Rob Fyfe, who told the conference that during Covid, the Ministry of Health had centralised everything and had become risk averse.

Fyfe had been asked by then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to act as a bridge between government and business on the Covid response.

“We ended up with an incredibly centralised decision-making infrastructure,” he said.

“Everything was centralised pretty much into the Ministry of Health and Wellington.

“You took what was a relatively small policy shop in the Ministry of Health and turned it into this all saying all controlling, all commanding organisation that ran both policy critical decision making operations and in the process became a massive bottleneck for decision making.

“And it excluded a lot of people from that decision-making process because it’s just so much going on. But I think because of that centralised decision-making process, we ultimately lost agility.”

Fyfe said the Ministry became “can’t do” and was constantly finding reasons not to do things.

“Our elimination strategy made us inherently very, very risk averse because the idea was we had to trap every possible vector of the virus coming in to protect the community,” he said.

“To maintain this position of elimination that forced us to become so risk averse.

“Everything became a reason why we shouldn’t do things rather than looking for ways to get things done.”

Wevers said that more generally, across the public service, there was an aversion to outside advice.

“I think there’s a general issue that openness to external voices. Is not as strong as it should be in the system that is providing advice, and that can be improved,” he said.

Scott said that if there was a theme for him, it was that we had too many centralised institutions.

Wevers argued that we had too many, that particularly at the local government level, they were too small.

Hipkins and Hughes, between them, have made big changes to the public service, predominantly focused on bringing back the concept of a public service and trying to bring greater coherence to the system as a whole.

But they did not address the kind of cultural questions that Wevers and Scott raised.