Opinion: Dr Jonathan Coleman MP: Reform in New Zealand

New Zealand is reforming its government structures to promote cross-departmental working. Dr Jonathan Coleman explains how.

By Civil Service World

21 Feb 2013

In its second term in office, New Zealand’s National Party-led government is focusing on four key priorities, including delivering better public services.

Better public services – or BPS – is a constant refrain around the capital. The government has identified ten key public service targets, and committed to reaching these targets by 2017. They are deliberately tough targets that front up to important challenges which could easily be placed in the “too hard” basket. We want to focus on issues that matter to New Zealanders ‘beyond the beltway’ – those outside our political elite.

The targets cover issues including the economy, such as reducing the number of people who’ve been on a working age benefit for more than 12 months; public safety, such as reducing the number of assaults on children and reoffending rates; and skills and education, such as increasing participation in early childhood education. They also include specific public service goals, such as ensuring New Zealanders can complete their transactions with the government easily in a digital environment.

In order to realise these ambitious goals, our public service departments are leaving behind an era of silos and compartmentalised responsibilities, and making a new commitment to working together across departments, sharing responsibilities and resources across sectors, and being accountable for achieving results on the ground. New Zealanders need to know their taxpayer dollars are being spent on initiatives that will make a difference in their lives.

New Zealand laid the foundations for its modern public service in the 1980s, with reforms that delineated the roles and responsibilities of department chief executives and introduced tools for ministers to exert a level of control over chief executive performance. Twenty-five years on, complex societal issues such as criminal reoffending require our chief executives to organise our public sector leadership in new ways. To tackle a problem like violence against children, a whole range of agencies under different chief executives need to co-ordinate efforts in pursuit of the goal. Public service leadership also needs to focus on the fiscal realities of delivering BPS.

Just as the United Kingdom has centralised procurement in key areas, the New Zealand cabinet has appointed three leaders within the State Services – our equivalent to the Cabinet Office – who have the mandate and resources to lead government agencies across three particular functions: ICT, procurement and property management.

Departmental chief executives will be required to participate in public sector-wide management of these facilities, which will save the taxpayer millions of dollars, while at the same time creating the systemic resilience that exists when centralised expertise is available to all departments. A centralised office space procurement strategy has already saved millions of dollars in rental costs and ensured that each department ends up in the most suitable building.

We are also expanding the mandate of the state services commissioner – similar to the UK’s head of the civil service – to become the head of the state services (HoSS), who will have the power to move people and money around the system to deploy them on key cross-departmental projects.

The HoSS is supported by the corporate centre: the three central agencies (the Commission, the Treasury, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) working together to provide strong leadership to, and performance management of, the state sector. This corporate centre is already leading the way in public sector reform. The three departments have merged back office functions into a single unit called Central Agency Shared Services (CASS). CASS has been operational since last March and provides human resources, information technology and management and finance functions.

To support these new ways for public service leaders to work together, we have introduced the State Sector and Public Finance Reform Bill. This proposes to extend chief executives’ responsibilities to consider the collective interests of the whole government and longer-term sustainability, rather than focusing on single departments or agencies.

This programme will only succeed if the new ethos of co-operation and innovation in the delivery of services is embraced at every level of the public service, and communication down through agencies is crucial. Recent reports to ministers indicate that the public service is relishing the challenge of delivering services and results that really make a difference for New Zealanders.

Dr Jonathan Coleman is the New Zealand minister of state services

Dr Coleman will speak on this topic at New Zealand House next Monday at 6pm. Enquiries about attending may be sent to

Also see our feature on international public service reform

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