Collective responsibilities

Top New Zealand official Iain Rennie is reforming a system often lauded in the UK. Suzannah Brecknell reports

By Suzannah Brecknell

18 Jul 2014

After September’s general election in New Zealand, a new government will take office; and it will receive – for the first time – a “collective briefing” on the current state of the public sector. This, according to NZ’s state services commissioner Iain Rennie, will be signed off by all agency and departmental heads, and will give officials’ opinions on which future reforms might be useful – and which unhelpful – for the public sector.

Producing this briefing is bold, especially since it will eventually be made public. But for Rennie, the goal is worth the risk: he believes it will encourage civil service leaders to take more responsibility for the future of the public sector.

Speaking earlier on 2 July at an Institute for Government event on management and leadership in the civil service, Rennie also outlined other reforms to NZ’s system. The country’s approach of giving civil service chiefs clear annual targets, balanced by greater freedom of operation, was recently praised by former UKBA chief Rob Whiteman. But the system can prompt leaders to pursue their own agencies’ aims too single-mindedly, at the cost of cross-departmental cooperation: Rennie recently reformed it to encourage collaboration and strengthen central leadership of key functions such as IT.

Rennie explained that recent changes to chief exec performance management are part of this drive to create stronger collective leadership. Alongside four core expectations relating to their own organisation, NZ mandarins now have two expectations linked to “system stewardship” – cross-government priorities to benefit the whole state sector.

One effect of the changes, he said, will be to place new demands on the corporate centre of government: it will need to focus more closely on its core priorities, and on providing support – such as strategic financial advice – to agencies. 

These changes will, Rennie hopes, enable civil service leaders to take control of reform agendas across the public services. “There has been a tendency in the past to look up to ministers to wait for the next public sector reform programme,” he said. “Those can be a long time coming, and when they come they won’t necessarily be the way that we would like. The core part of our stewardship as public servants is that we take responsibility  for the performance of our agencies, and a core part of a role as a collective group of leaders is how we improve the system going forward.” 

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