Today’s Beehive is staffed more with cynical political strategists than with serious policy pundits. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ministers can make a difference.
After Mr. Fixit Steven Joyce took over the reins of Novopay from John Key in 2013, it didn’t take too long before it started paying most teachers, by and large, on time, roughly
the right amount.
But the likes of Joyce, Helen Clark’s Michael Cullen, Jim Bolger’s Bill Birch, and – to a much lesser extent – Jacinda Ardern’s Chris Hipkins are rare.
In a representative democracy most MPs will always be a bit average and most ministers not much better. The structure, rules and staff of the public service must take this into account.
The Ardern regime’s inability to deliver has become a national joke, with KiwiBuild being the punchline.
But the endless failures, particularly in sensitive areas of social policy, including mental health, have real consequences.
As Newshub’s Imogen Wells revealed this week, almost a year ago Ardern himself launched a national strategy and action plan to eliminate domestic and sexual violence. “As Prime Minister, I take responsibility for the well-being of our Tamariki and their Whānau,” Ardern told the assembled social workers, political analysts, dignitaries and media gathered at Te Papas Rongomaraeroa for the historic event.
In support of the new strategy, the government announced a $20 million fund to help victims of non-fatal strangulation. It was intended to fund 870 medical experts to assist the Crown in prosecuting or securing early confessions of sex offenders.
In fact, it was only used in 86 cases. Worse, more than half of these experts ended up being hired by defense attorneys to support alleged perpetrators rather than victims.
It’s hard to understand that a government could be so incompetent as to announce plans to support 870 sex crime victims and instead help alleged perpetrators.
When asked about the debacle at an event to promote her legislation on hate speech, the Prime Minister said neither she nor former Justice Secretary Andrew Little were responsible.
It seems that the prime minister only feels responsible for government programs if they get them in front of the television cameras, not for whether or not they happen, in this case.
Current Justice Secretary Kiri Allan blamed the scheme’s failure on Covid, cold comfort to victims of a near-fatal strangulation who were to be helped.
Another factor is probably that no one in the Beehive pressured the bureaucrats into holding weekly meetings to review progress as Joyce, Cullen, Birch, or Hipkins would have done.
But even that explanation isn’t enough when it comes to a program designed to help victims of sexual violence that has been shown to help suspected offenders.
The State Sector Act 1988 – which the Ardern government renamed the apparently more vigilant Public Service Act 2020 – was intended to clarify that department heads were responsible for implementing their minister’s policies.
When things went wrong, they were personally responsible, either by missing their next raise or even being expected to quit.
Accountability has grown murky under this and previous administrations. Reporting lines in Wellington were intentionally blurred. Investigations into failed programs or other mishaps usually reveal that no one was at fault, but that systems could have been better – and that’s how the Wellington bureaucracy and political class like it.
In officials’ defense, the original policy may have been stupid. Perhaps the mere idea of 870 medical experts to help the Crown prosecute sex offenders or secure early guilty pleas was not advisable. And maybe – like KiwiBuild – it was dreamed up by politicians in the backseat of a cab in response to bad polls, rather than being given proper scrutiny.
But if so, officials should advise ministers freely and openly, telling them their ideas are rubbish.
If they do, but ministers still want to go ahead, that’s fair enough – the responsibility lies with the politicians. But today’s bureaucrats are not the brave visionaries of the 1930s, 1940s, 1980s and 1990s.
Perhaps the result of years of Beehive bullying, the policy advice released under the Official Information Act reveals a cowed civil service unwilling to challenge its political masters even behind closed doors, but more than happy to do whatever it takes to meet the next announcement to ensure an announcement is well received on television.
For all we know, some political analysts might have wanted to tell ministers that the non-lethal strangulation program would help perpetrators rather than victims, but were overruled by their superiors, who were focused on not arguing with the hive.
The culture of the perpetual campaign, in which the hive is occupied more by cynical political strategists than by serious policy pundits; the much-abused no-surprises rule, in which the Beehive steps in to ensure he’s never officially told anything he doesn’t want to hear; and the gotcha culture in elements of the media encourage cowardice towards robust analysis.
The steady growth in the number of privileged middle-class political analysts and communications workers in Wellington does not appear to have improved the quality of public sector performance.
There’s no real reason to think that a new National Act government would have much more competent ministers than the current unfortunate bunch, or that they would be genuinely interested in improving public policy and outcomes, rather than just their own re-election to secure.
Most likely, the permanent campaign would go on, the bloated bureaucracy would remain focused on keeping its heads down and whatever KiwiBuild equivalents, the $1.9 billion mental health and non-lethal strangulation program the National dreams of , will remain similarly unchallenged and fail just as spectacularly.
Until a new government takes office that takes its own political agenda seriously, is willing to be challenged by officials without rancor, and commits to genuinely holding both ministers and senior officials to account, nothing will change. The public will continue to pay taxes for programs that either fail or, worse, do the opposite of what we are promised.
– Matthew Hooton is currently interim Head of Policy and Communications in the office of incoming Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown. These views are his own.