The recent fate of UK leaders in New Zealand highlights the difficulty of parachuting in managers from one country to another.
Every country has different rules for its public services – which is why UK civil servants aren’t always a hit overseas.
“An unexpected journey” is the subtitle of the first Hobbit film, New Zealand’s latest contribution to world cinema. It’s also been the fate of Lesley Longstone, the senior British civil servant who was recruited to head up New Zealand’s Ministry of Education, and who is now returning home just over a year into a five-year contract.
Longstone’s abrupt departure follows that of Janet Grossman, who returned to the UK last year after only nine months as the head of Work and Income New Zealand, a frontline benefits and work support agency.
It is often assumed that public managers can move seamlessly from one country to another, especially if they possess a shared cultural heritage and similar political systems. But these two recent departures rather give the lie to that idea – in particular Longstone’s experience, which was marked by a series of disasters.
An attempt to increase class sizes, in order to redirect money into teacher training, resulted in a humiliating backdown after parents and teachers revolted. A move to merge schools in post-earthquake Christchurch was just as badly handled, with parts of it struck down by the courts. To cap it all off, a new private sector system for paying teachers, called Novopay, has been a near-total failure – so much so that it is known in some quarters as Novopain.
Not all of this is Longstone’s fault, of course. New Zealand’s education minister, Hekia Parata, new to the job, is widely regarded as being out of her depth, and was described by the main teachers’ union as “aloof and autocratic”. It is no surprise that the two women had the “strained” relationship that was cited as the main reason for Longstone’s departure.
In the words of Brenda Pilott, the head of New Zealand’s Public Service Association union, Longstone became “the fall guy for an inept minister”.
But several factors counted against the British import. First, despite having held senior positions in Britain, Longstone apparently had no actual experience of running a department or the all-important matter of managing a direct relationship with a minister. In particular, she may not have appreciated how difficult it would be to work for Parata.
Moreover, she had no personal knowledge of the way the New Zealand public sector works – which is, in some key ways, quite different from its British equivalent. Civil servants at all levels in New Zealand have a much closer relationship with their minister than is the case in most countries. Its chief executives, in particular, are more obviously accountable for their performance, through private sector-style contracts and set objectives.
In Longstone’s case, that accountability translated, rightly or wrongly, into having to front up to the media to defend key decisions, after Parata failed to show – something that UK permanent secretaries, for example, would rarely, if ever, have to do.
The reasons for Grossman’s departure are less clear, and may have been partly personal. But it cannot have helped that her minister, Paula Bennett, suddenly appointed a board of outside “experts” to oversee Work and Income’s operations. Internal power struggles between Work and Income and its parent body, the Ministry of Social Development, are also rumoured to have played a part.
For neither Longstone nor Grossman would any of these internal issues have been clear from afar. These issues might, however, have been picked up by people who knew the terrain better – including those who have made the cross-country transition more cautiously.
After all, many of New Zealand’s public sector leaders are originally from the UK. But the successful ones have usually gone out there for the long term and worked their way up through the hierarchy, rather than being parachuted in.
As Pilott put it, the New Zealand government “needs to think long and hard about making overseas appointments, and consider the unique complexities, demands and pressures of the New Zealand context”. Nonetheless, the trend continues: Kevin Lavery, the chief executive of Britain’s Cornwall county council, has just been appointed to run the city council in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.
Lavery, whose time at Cornwall has been controversial, may of course prove to be a good appointment, especially if he has done his homework. But if not, recent history suggests that he may end up, in the words of the Hobbit’s original subtitle, going “there and back again”.
First published in The Guardian