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COMMENTARY: By Rob Campbell

In Pyongyang there is a public service which would appeal to our own Public Service Commissioner in Aotearoa New Zealand. It never makes any dissenting or controversial view known.

Rather it readies itself for any potential change in the face of the Kim family leadership. Ever ready to resume the daily grind of boot-licking and box-ticking of a docile public service.

It is, as I like to say, neutered rather than neutral, but from above it can be very hard to tell the difference.

In the ideal world that seems to be preferred in “PyongPoneke”, there is no room for open debate and each word means what the Public Service Commissioner says it means.

It is rather like the world described by Lewis Carroll: “When I use a word”, Humpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all”. Thank you Commissioner Humpty for your work taking the word “impartiality” out of the dictionary and into the public service world.

Imperial and colonial past
I am not against the public service. I am strongly for an excellent, efficient, equitable and effective public service. But you do not get that in a modern and complex society from a model of public service derived from a monocultural, inequitable and dare I say it (yes I do) imperial and colonial past.

In the real world what they like to call our public service is in fact a politically subservient service, far removed from the public it is supposed to serve.

This comment is not directed at the many thousands of public servants working closely with those they serve.

These people, the real public service, are often underpaid and overworked. They spend much time battling with the rules and processes and prejudices imposed on them by those at the top of the tree. Many are scared to speak up, so they leave or stay quiet.

I understand why, they need the job too much to risk being branded difficult. Not a few of them write to me, call me, or stop me in the street. And it is not to say “get back in line”.

They and the mandarins themselves know what the problem is. There is a square mile or so around the Beehive in Wellington, which is like the Vatican in Italy. A different country within a country. The world looks totally different from there.

Those there are mainly there for the same reason, and they are faced inwards, mentally at least, towards what they see as power and away from the people, the public they are supposed to serve.

They cannot understand Ōtara, or Cannons Creek . . .
They cannot see, hear or understand those in Ōtara, in Te Tai Tokerau, in Tairāwhiti, in Cannons Creek, on the West Coast or rural Southland.

Alongside the big consultancy firms that share their buildings, their CVs and their views, senior advisers draw up plans for the rest of us on whiteboards.

These are parsed by the “tier one” people who over coffee, wine, or whisky cosily massage these into an acceptable form for politicians. Just enough choices to create an illusion of political control, but not so much as to upset the system.

Are these people impartial or neutral ? No, they do not need to be. They have strong views which reflect the caste they belong to. Some of them even jokingly refer to this as “Poneketanga”.

They engage rafts of “communications” people to sell the story — often poorly as in Te Whatu Ora, where there are more than 200 such people and where despite that overload PR firms are often called in to sell better.

Back to basics
This is not a way to create an efficient, effective, excellent and equitable public service. To do that we will have to go back to some basics about the purpose of public service today and in the future.

To my mind this would include:

  • Opening up jobs to a much wider range of people with real world experience, be that commercial or social, in forms that are not all for a lifetime, but which enable free and ongoing interchange;
  • Opening up policy-making to start from the “bottom up”, and which are not based on “top down”, carefully framed, bogus consultations;
  • Allowing people to speak their minds and debate difficult issues without having to assume that future political winners are not so prejudiced and narrow-minded as to refuse to work with anyone with a different opinion to theirs; and
  • Paying real attention, not playing pretend attention, to the professional bodies and unions which represent staff, who mostly will prefer rightly to get on with their jobs.

None of that seems hard or dangerous to me. After all, it is only changing a public service model which has produced or failed to prevent all of the many crises we can observe around us.

Rob Campbell is former chairperson of Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This article was first published by Stuff and is republished by Asia Pacific Report with the author’s permission.

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