Public service senior management speech - Mallard

Published: Thu 18 Oct 2001 12:08 AM
Hon Trevor Mallard
Thursday 18 October 2001 Speech Notes
Public service senior management conference, Te Papa
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
The theme of this year’s conference, “Innovation and stability: meeting the challenge”, neatly summarises the issues faced by the public sector. It is a paradox - how to find a way to reconcile the public’s desire for consistency with the need to improve performance.
But it has to happen.
Modern politics and public administration seeks a new relationship between the individual and the community, and a redefinition of rights and obligations.
It has a concern for social justice, and promotes social inclusion and the fostering of a fair society where community and state act in partnership.
Our government believes we can encourage innovation and economic development while still looking after the basic needs of all constituents and providing opportunities, regardless of personal circumstances.
Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt summed it up in a nutshell when he said: "as much market as is necessary and as much social justice as is possible".
It is a pragmatic response to the issues facing our society.
I believe there is a need for a new approach within the public service. This new pathway would provide a link between the seeming opposing demands for both innovation and stability.
None of us want a return to the excesses of the past. But nor do we want a public sector where individual agencies compete for 'clients' or congratulate themselves for cost cutting by buck-passing.
For years now we have seen the debate between centralisation and decentralisation as the best approach to public management. A new approach suggests that neither is inherently superior, and that collaboration between agencies no matter how they are structured and governed will yield the best results. This is the philosophy behind e-government, which you are all going to have so much to do with over the next few years.
I believe we can choose to create another path and create a public service that:
- operates efficiently and effectively while fulfilling its core objective to serve the public.
- serves Government by providing timely, quality advice and innovative ideas on implementing policy.
- contributes to improving New Zealand’s performance domestically and on the world stage.
So, how can you as public service senior managers put this theory into practice? In short, we need to walk the talk.
In my presentation to you today I want to outline some practical steps that the public service can take on the long walk to improving public sector performance. I will outline some innovative solutions that your colleagues have developed that have made a real difference to communities. I will emphasise the importance of the e-government programme and your full participation in it. I will also stress the importance of retaining the core public service values and standards in order to give a sense of stability in our ever-changing world.
The good news is that there is increasing evidence that the public service has already made tangible progress down the path towards improving its capability and operations.
My colleagues and I know there is a lot of good work being done around the country. Good work is being achieved through departments working collaboratively - more so now than any other time that I’ve seen. This is great.
You’ll see a snapshot of some of this work this afternoon, during the case study presentations. These “walking the talk’ presentations traverse four of the Government’s goals and showcase different and effective ways of working.
But we can always do better.
As Minister I value a “no surprises” approach in the public service. What this means in practice is considering some simple steps. These steps are:
- Better contingency planning.
- An early involvement in the process
- Learning from mistakes
- Applying the fairness test
With regard to the first point - better contingency planning is required as life rarely goes according to plan. The events of the last few weeks in the USA and the Middle East have unfortunately thrown that into sharp relief.
If there’s a chance that something might happen, don’t just say so, say this is what we’ll do about it if it does happen.
This applies if you’re offering policy advice, a potential programme for implementation, response to an international treaty or advice on capital investment. Environments change, so let’s manage that environment proactively by providing more options for different possibilities.
With regard to the second point, what I am really asking for is more “rough and ready” advice. You should not be afraid to talk to Ministers earlier about what we want. Instead of handing me a highly cut and polished jewel, let’s talk initially rough diamonds instead.
I’ve issued a challenge to the SSC to do exactly that. I want the ideas first, before the finely worked details even get written.
Whilst on this subject, please don’t be offended when ideas get knocked back. It’s not an insult. Getting Ministers involved earlier in a policy process just saves everybody time and resources that are scarce in our crowded environment.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to learn from mistakes and don’t be afraid to get things wrong. As a country we’re exceedingly tough on what we regard as failure - just ask Wayne Smith or many other sports coaches whose win record is anything less than 100 percent.
We need to become more tolerant of failure by acknowledging the potential for mistakes in advance and by having plans ready for when the inevitable happens and things don’t go according to plan. To borrow a well-known phrase we need to “expect the unexpected” and learn from our mistakes. Ministers would feel a lot better about taking more risks if these principles were followed.
The last point I wish to raise in this context is about the issue of fairness. As outlined earlier, the philosophy contained in third way politics promotes a fair and just society. Effective public services should be even handed in their approach to stakeholders. I expect government departments to develop an internal culture that applies tests of fairness to decisions about what is done, and how it is done.
I apply the principles of fairness in my own office. All fresh ideas are given a fair hearing.
This brings me to a core theme of today - how the public service can better serve Government by providing more fresh and innovative ideas.
There has been a lot said recently about the need for innovative thinking in this country. Unfortunately, in the public sector, innovation can be difficult. Research has shown that the institutional environment for innovation is less receptive in the public sector than it is in the private sector.
But less receptive does not mean that innovation is impossible, just more challenging!
As Education Minister I am responsible for one of this country’s greatest challenges: the education of future generations of New Zealanders.
The Education Ministry is a good example of the public service paradox. It needs to be innovative in providing different education solutions for different parts of society yet it must also promote stability by ensuring that all New Zealanders receive minimum standards of education, and have access to high quality teachers.
Education is an area crying out for innovative ideas. Yet a good idea is not just enough, you must also have a plan that will take that good idea from conception through to implementation - and you must be robust enough to take some knocks along the way.
I would like to share with you a couple of education initiatives that had their origins in a bright idea.
The first example is a community driven partnership between iwi and the Ministry - the Tuhoe Education Authority.
The Tuhoe community approached the Government with a good idea. They wished to put in place a new “flax roots” structure to improve student and school performance in the Tuhoe area. The Government agreed with the idea and provided funding for a project manager and support for the Tuhoe Education Authority infrastructure.
The Tuhoe Education Authority is now responsible for developing strategies that are used to empower schools, communities, whanau and hapu within the Tuhoe rohe.
It has also been responsible for establishing Computers in Homes in 40 homes. As well as successfully improving student and school performance in the Tuhoe area, the process of consulting whanau and hapu has resulted in adults revealing a commitment and desire to increase their own skills and knowledge. Other government departments are now seeing the potential of using the Authority as an agent to deliver non-education related initiatives.
This initiative has been successful because it developed a unique solution specific to the Tuhoe environment.
The second example of an innovative education success story had its beginnings in the observations of some speech language therapists. Their idea lead to the development of He Awhiawhi Tamariki ki te Panui Pukapuka.
HPP is a reading programme that improves the literacy skills of early readers by concentrating on their oral skills. It started as a pilot programme in seven low decile schools in Rotorua and works by using a combination of skilled trainers, teachers and parent volunteers. From its small beginnings, 54 schools now use HPP.
The programme results are impressive - students who had previously made little or no reading progress in their regular class programme are now at the level of an “average” student. The successes of the programmes extend beyond the benefits for students. A number of tutors went on to train as teachers, others joined their school’s boards of trustees, and for some HPP was the first step to gaining their first job in years.
I am enthusiastic about these initiatives because of the real results they have achieved. They are practical examples of the kind of fresh thinking that I want to see accepted as integral to the modern public service.
What about innovation across the whole of government?
I said I was going to talk about e-government. As you should all know, the Government is very committed to its e-government strategy. It presents the clearest opportunity for improving capability and performance across the public sector that you are ever likely to see and be involved in.
I know that many of you and your agencies have made big contributions to e-government so far. Others are gearing up for their involvement in the coming months and years. I can tell you that Ministers are pleased to see this happening.
Much progress has been made with e-government over the past year. The E-government Unit has worked to develop the common foundations on which you and your agencies will build e-government in the coming months and years. Looking forward, over the next year the Government will expect you all to be putting your best efforts into using these foundations, building e-government into your own strategies and looking for opportunities to collaborate with others.
I know that your chief executives are keen to collaborate, and know that you hold the keys to success. A revised version of the e-government strategy will be produced by the end of this year. It places the onus for results on your shoulders. I know that you are up to the challenge and expect no agency to shrink from the task.
It will not always be easy. Generally, many of the problems in the public sector are complex and multi-faceted. What is required is joint recognition of a problem by several agencies, the development of shared objectives, and joint leadership to see the idea through to implementation in the community.
For those of you who work in policy focused organisations, don’t think community involvement is solely the responsibility of the larger departments like Social Development, IRD or Education - all of whom have an obvious frontline. Walking the talk must be done by all. Regardless of which part of Government you work in, the frontline is the front door of your office, whether it’s the Terrace in Wellington, the Octagon in Dunedin or Emerson Street in Napier.
Bright ideas can happen at any level of an organisation. As Minister of State Services I am the champion for the SSC’s new values and standards package. The Commissioner could have chosen to update and reissue the Public Service Code of Conduct, which would have fulfilled his responsibilities under the State Sector Act. But Michael and his team had the good idea to rework the code to make it more relevant for the public service in the new century.
What started as a project about redoing the Code resulted in a package that consists of material that encourages debate and discussion about things that are intrinsic to being a public servant, regardless of your seniority, experience or geographical location.
There’s training material for managers to use with staff - stories with lesson plans, a video featuring public servants talking about their lives and a drama based around a situation that many frontline staff must face at some stage in their career.
This is why the package is called Walking the Talk: Making Values Real.
I highly recommend the package - the video will be playing during the next break and I suggest you take a look if you haven’t already seen it.
Walking the Talk brings me to the other side of the innovation and stability paradox. It’s very easy to talk about innovation and give examples of what’s new and interesting. Everybody loves new and interesting things, particularly Ministers.
But we can overlook the importance of stability and the need to provide continuity and reliability to citizens.
We must recognise the need to respect the relationship between the individual and the community, and promotes stability and social inclusion in a fair society where community and state act in partnership.
You, as senior public servants, are responsible for providing advice and solutions for the hardest, most difficult problems that this country faces. You are also in a position to help Ministers make the most of the opportunities available to New Zealand.
What binds you together, and provides a sense of purpose is your spirit of service - the enduring values and standards that comprise the New Zealand public service. Stable shared values and standards provide a solid base on which innovation and improved performance can take place.
Similarly the public needs stability from the public service because it needs to know the trust it has in Government is not misplaced, that its resources are being used wisely, and that decisions are made fairly and equitably. As mentioned before, the latter is phenomenally important to the public - New Zealanders need to know that their taxes are being collected in the same way, that all people who turn up at ACC or Social Development are given the same treatment and so on.
The public may not know how lucky they are -our commitment to a quality public service means they have guaranteed access to fair and equitable decision-making. And if they feel they haven’t received it, there are a number of ways they can get decisions reviewed. Not all societies in the world can have such well-placed confidence in the institutions of government.
Your response to the call for innovative thinking should not lose sight of the importance of this stability and the confidence this gives to Ministers and the public.
In some ways I realise I’m preaching to the converted. As senior managers you have the day to day responsibility to balance stability and innovation in demonstrable ways for your staff.
What I am looking to you for is leadership.
You can take a lead role in providing the right kind of environment for your staff that allows them to understand and manage the innovation versus stability paradox.
To provide leadership in ensuring staff think about contingency planning and are able to learn from their mistakes.
To provide the kind of leadership that encourages ideas generation and innovative thinking whilst not forgetting about the basics of the job.
In short, to walk the talk.
When I became Minister of State Services nearly two years ago, it seemed, on the outside at least, as if the public service had lost its way, and forgotten a lot of the values that the public and government expect from those who serve us.
It now seems we are back on the right path. I look forward to seeing what further steps, or even leaps, the public service will achieve over the coming years.

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