New Zealand has too many Cabinet ministers and too many government agencies – but more departmental mergers is not the solution, Labour MP Trevor Mallard said at a joint lecture for the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies and the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand.
Mallard, a former Minister of Education and State Services Minister, said New Zealand’s government was too fragmented, with “Crown entities for Africa” and agencies like Work and Income New Zealand that were “a body with no brain”.
Too many ministerial positions had also been created to tie caucus into Cabinet, he said, and most of the “talent” in a Cabinet was in the top half. Under Helen Clark, the Cabinet committee of the 10 most senior ministers “worked extremely well … Those ministers were much more likely to have read – which is a good start – and understand – which is even better – the papers they were being asked to consider.”
The “ideal” Cabinet, Mallard said, would have 10 members and 5-6 positions outside Cabinet “with training wheels attached”. However, he admitted this was not a popular view among those ranked 8-20 in his own party.
Mallard also rejected the idea of wholesale government restructuring, saying its effect on morale and productivity made it unattractive. “I don’t have a major appetite for shape-of-government reform. The whole system is not coherent or logical, but the idea of spending years reviewing and changing is not appealing at all … I’m much less a fan of structural change than I was 15 years ago.”
Asked about alternatives, he said: “A lot of it goes to the ability of agencies to work together and have multi-agency budgeting.” Government also needed to relax the “very tight” chief executive responsibilities that inhibited change.
For example, when choosing a new computer system for WINZ some years ago, its senior management had not acknowledged that it needed to work better with IRD systems. They had instead taken a decision in WINZ’s interests only, Mallard said, adding: “We have got to work harder at avoiding that sort of approach.”
On ministerial appointments, Mallard took a softer line on the GCSB scandal than some of his Labour colleagues, saying the prime minister “had the right to make the appointment” of Ian Fletcher, and could have refused to answer questions about the GCSB.
However, he also noted that under Helen Clark, Cabinet “never” declined a State Services Commissioner’s recommendation.
The process then for appointments was that a deputy State Services Commissioner would talk to the relevant minster, “generally with me in the room”, about the skills and attributes that the minister wanted in his or her chief executive. But, Mallard said, “My rule was that ministers were never to mention names of persons who could do the job.”
Asked about Novopay, Mallard said it was “my fault”, since, as education minister, he had felt that the previous arrangement with Datacom left the ministry “captured by an outside organisation who could basically charge us what they wanted”.
An in-house solution was then investigated, before the decision was made to go to a new outside system, Novopay, “because allegedly there were $10 million worth of savings over a number of years and people thought that was important at the time … It was the victim in our time of short-term-itis.”
However, he added, Labour’s planned roll-out had been more careful. “There was to be a pilot, it was to be introduced regionally, and the old system would run in parallel.” National Party ministers, he said, “didn’t bother reading earlier decisions” before they approved the eventual Novopay roll-out.
In general, Mallard said the public service should rely less on contractors “who are here one day and gone tomorrow”. It should also create paths for public sector workers “to work independently of their teams across the public sector”. The public service needed to identify the next generation of leaders and allow them to “shift between agencies as they move along their career on a temporary basis”.