We need a credible inquiry into what has happened to the NZ Public Service

On Monday 8th September 2014, Associate Professor Grant Duncan wrote an opinion piece in the Hawke’s Bay Today asking whether there is a need for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the New Zealand Public Service.  

This was a serious issue even before the recent implications of Crown Ministers and public servants acting undemocratically.  

I wrote a guest blog in The Daily Blog last month on some of the failings within the public sector here.

And I wrote this Letter to the Editor in response to Duncan’s op-ed, published 10th September 2014.


Grant Duncan (Talking Point 8th Sept) is quite correct in raising concerns about the neutrality of the public sector. The State Sector Act 1988 started the rot. From then we got CEOs rather than Secretaries, molded in the corporate model. CEO’s ‘performance’ was monitored, with ‘risk pay’ provided if they ‘measured up’ to the Minister as well as the State Services Commission.

All staff effectively worked for the CEO rather than the people of New Zealand. That ended up being a recipe for blind obedience and transactional allocation of tasks, where once thinking, knowledge and public engagement was cherished. We were even told you didn’t need to know anything to be a policy analyst; that could distort the view through the lens of nonsense economics that was all the rage.

The result was the rise of many people who were more into intrigue than ethical behaviour, more interested in themselves than public service. The loyal Eichmanns and the megalomaniacs do not care about serving the country and our future. They did not rise everywhere, but are there to an ever-increasing degree. Treasury destroyed a lot of the public service ethic because they didn’t actually think there was such a thing. In their theory, all people are selfish and out for personal gain.

By the late 1990s ‘good’ policy analysis had been redefined. It used to involve analysing all the policy means to achieve a desired end – free and frank advice. That process was effectively scrapped in favour of using free-market ideology (whether it was relevant or not) and finding out what the Minister and Treasury wanted to hear. Then giving it to them.

Since then it has got a lot worse. As Sir Geoffrey Palmer called for in February, we do need a credible inquiry into what has gone wrong with our democracy.


Chris Perley

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3 Responses to We need a credible inquiry into what has happened to the NZ Public Service

  1. James P Barton says:

    Hi Chris

    Good on you for raising this! When i “retired” from MfE in July 2007 I I said in my retirement speech that “NZ needs a Royal Commission into the Public Service”, It hasn’t happened yet but the pressures for one are mounting.

  2. Bulaman says:

    The simple answer is we pay salaries that are far too high. Public service salaries need to slashed to 50-60 percent of equivalent private sector rates. The “glory days” that everyone remembers were when public servants had low pay rates.
    1800 public servants in Auckland on $100K+ WTF???

    • cjkperley says:

      I don’t have a problem with the pay so much as the disparities and the type of people that get promoted. At one end we casualise. At the other end we treat them as small dictators, even though their merit is dubious. Instead of pretending that a distorted power structure makes for a meritocracy in any way, we should acknowledge power as a reality, and moderate it. Do that and we are more likely to get fair remuneration. I don’t think someone on $100k is a problem. If you start adding zeros, however ….

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