• Can our government cope with the 21st C?

    by  • March 12, 2013 • Articles, Comment • 0 Comments

    A government that relies too much on anecdote, doesn’t have enough specialists in top positions and isn’t properly held to account.

    That was the disagnosis from Len Cook, who used to be head of statistics for both the New Zealand and the UK governments, and who gave a very entertaining – but also worrying – talk last night on how our government runs.

    Speaking at an IPANZ and IGPS seminar, his argument was that several problems are seriously hampering New Zealand’s ability to foot it in the twenty-first century.

    The first is that our government isn’t currently dealing with a world that is becoming much, much more complex – we’re still trying to make decisions on the back of an anecdotal, ‘she’ll be right’ approach that might have been fine 50 years ago, but isn’t now.

    “This country has made so much policy on the basis of anecdote and a lack of evidence. It isn’t clear that our future can be so dependent on serendipity and received wisdom.”

    In particular, we don’t go back and look at what went wrong, Cook argued. “The absence of a commitment to evaluate [the success or failure of policies] in New Zealand government is extraordinary.”

    New Zealanders were “amazed” by how much evaluation the British government did, he said. “We do very, very little … We need a proper review of things that go wrong as part of our culture.”

    New Zealand was also behind in terms of how much it spent finding out about how its ‘non-traditional’ trading partners – such as China – functioned. While New Zealanders were very comfortable in, say, the UK, they didn’t put much effort into understanding countries less similar to theirs.

    The second big problem is in the way government departments are run. Senior public sector workers now have to do so much managerial work, Cook said, that the amount of time spent on making sure that good-quality advice is being provided is correspondingly reduced.

    The government also recruits too many “generalists” to run departments, so that “you have to go down three levels [in a department] before you find someone who knows what they are talking about”.

    Senior public leaders were also failing to develop the next generation of leaders in the way they had done in the days of greater cooperation and the “college of cardinals” approach among chief executives.

    The third big problem is that the government isn’t properly accountable for its actions, Cook said.

    Ministers often haven’t been required to actually answer questions – except more recently under Lockwood Smith as Speaker – and select committees don’t have the “grunt” and the power they do in the UK.

    In short, for the last century, Cook said, New Zealand had traded in well-known markets with long-established partners, and had been able to get by on ideology and beliefs – but no longer. “We have to develop a more enquiring capacity to analyse what’s happening.”

    After his speech, people in the audience backed up some of these concerns, and expressed others. One public sector worker, in particular, talked about how the quality of policy advice was being compromised by “the desire to please ministers”, and cuts to budgets that took place “to the detriment of good advice”.

    Because policy analysis was increasingly being “retrofitted” around what the minister had decided, often in the absence of good evidence, ministries now produced “policy-based evidence” rather than “evidence-based policy”, the public sector worker said.


    The wit and wisdom of Len Cook

    On cross-party liaisons being forbidden: “In recent years, it’s become important to sleep in sheets of the same colour, whether you’re at home or not.”

    On ministerial competence: “We have a great political system, but it’s like giving the keys to the car to teenagers on Saturday night – and they do wheelies with it.”

    On government being so fragmented by the 1980s and 90s structural changes: ministerial responsibilities are “a random scattering, a bit like pick-up sticks”.

    On Sky City: “20 years ago, I fired a mid-ranking public official who spoke to one of the parties [in a tender] and gave them information he shouldn’t have. Did I make the wrong decision?”

    On inquiries: New Zealanders look for “a safe pair of hands” to run a review, whereas the British want to be “done over by the best bastard”.

    Max Rashbrooke


    Max is an author, academic and journalist working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues. Sign up to Max's mailing list.

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