The CEO of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ben King at yesterday's Scrutiny hearing

The new Chief Executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) yesterday gave a Select Committee a brutally frank outline of the department’s role as the agency right at the centre of power in Wellington.

Ben King, formerly a deputy Chief Executive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is a diplomat, but his comments to Parliament’s Government Administration Committee conducting its “Scrutiny” examination of the DPMC were blunt and direct.

“One of the core functions of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is the provision of free and frank advice to the Prime minister to help with the last step of what are obviously often very complex issues,” he said.

“And we’re right at the heart of where things do come together, just before they hit Cabinet.

“It’s a really important role.”

The key element within the DPMC which delivers that advice is the Policy Advisory Group (PAG).

 We are really focused on making sure that the PAG is really fit for purpose, really plugged into the Prime Minister’s office, and that the Prime Minister’s office is plugged into the PAG and, through us, into the wider world of the public service and through ministerial offices to make sure that the public service can do all it can deliver the best outcomes for New Zealanders.”

It seems that the DPMC was assigned the task of policing the 49 targets announced as part of the Prime Minister’s first 100-day plan.

King said the public service agencies had set themselves up well to work on the plan.

“They certainly heard the government’s message about the importance of delivery and really working hard and structuring themselves to focus on quickly driving hard to do that,” he said.

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“The quarterly plan focus on the targets really provided a discipline in terms of actions and having things done in a defined time.

“It really does make agencies respond.

“And we see that, evidenced through the completion of that first 100-day plan with 49 actions. All done.

“And we’ve got the next quarterly plan, finishing up soon with 36 actions against which ministers are tracking, month by month, to just see how they are going, and we’ll be reporting on it to ministers at the end of this month.”

King said the targets had an impact on the public service.

“Public service agencies have always worked collectively, and they’ve always worked across the system,” he said.

“The hard deadline of the quarterly results does drive a different sort of behaviour because they are expected to deliver, and they have responded positively in doing so.”

As well as the “actions”, the Prime Minister in April set nine targets for the Government: health, crime, unemployment, education, housing and climate change.

The DPMC will oversee these.

The Executive Director of the DPMC Delivery Unit, Stephen Crombie, told the Committee that each agency would start reporting on targets in July.

“It’s the first that they are preparing now,” he said.

“What we do is produce the consolidated report and give that advice to the Prime Minister on the status of those targets.”

The “actions” and the “targets” are new ideas for the public service as a whole. Because they are the property of the Prime Minister, the DPMC will be his eyes and ears—and presumably enforcer—to ensure they are achieved.

This will transform the role of the Delivery Unit, which, under the previous Government, was called the Implementation Unit and was tasked with implementing specific government policies, such as immigration reform.

But now, its new role involves a step back and requires that agencies report to their Ministers and the DPMC as well.

“The Implementation Unit was set up in 2021 and did really deep dives into existing programs,” he said.

“It did 28 over its period of existence.

“The delivery unit is really focused across broader delivery looking across the delivery of targets and other government priorities.

“So this is quite a different approach.”

 This means that the DPMC is now the lead agency on policy development.

“ I am also very focused on doing our part as a department that is one of the three central agencies,” said King.

“So with Treasury and with the Public Service Commission, we want to do all we can at the heart of the public service with DPMC leading on policy, with Treasury leading on economic and fiscal advice, and with the Public Service Commission doing measurement and delivery of high-quality public service, working together to make sure that we drive performance in the public service.”

Ironically, the Delivery Unit’s funding is yet another “fiscal cliff”; it will run out at the end of next year.

Then, said King, “We’ll talk to the Prime minister ultimately and then to the finance minister about what sort of delivery unit they want going forward.”

King is likely to get that extra funding because the targets that the Delivery Unit is overseeing are six year targets, expected to not be completely achieved until 2030.

“Over time, the public service and Ministers will be able to see how policy and action against that will deliver or not.

“And I guess it’s an opportunity to think about retooling in the event that things aren’t moving in the direction that the government would like.”

But the clear implication is that the DPMC will be the final advisors to the Prime Minister on whether agencies, and consequently Ministers, are meeting his targets.

That makes Ben King potentially the most powerful public servant in Wellington.