Monday 30 April 2018

Shane Jones’ Critique Of Bureaucratic Obstructionism Is Well Made.

On To Something: Now, it may be that Shane Jones simply fancies himself as an economic czar surrounded by cronies and flunkies who treat his word as law. And that, I’m prepared to concede, is a profoundly disturbing picture! More likely, however, is that Jones is lashing out in frustration against a system specifically designed to thwart the promises and plans of populist politicians like himself and his leader.

SHANE JONES is on to something. Whether it’s the thing I think he’s on to, or something else entirely, I don’t know. For the sake of argument, however, let’s just assume we’re both onto the same thing – and take it from there. And what is “the thing” we’re on to? The problem of bureaucratic obstructionism.

As Minister of Economic Development, Jones is appalled and frustrated by the time and effort required to get anything done in New Zealand. The Labour-NZ First coalition government has given him a billion dollars to kick our flagging regional economies into life. He wants to get cracking – but the bureaucratic obstacles in his path are holding him up.

He wants that to change. As an incoming minister in a new government, he wants to be able replace the incumbent bureaucratic bosses with his own people. That way, the enormous power conferred upon the Crown’s CEO’s by the State Services Act could be harnessed to the core democratic duty of making his party’s election promises come true.

In theory, this is precisely what is supposed to happen under the existing system. Government ministers inform their CEO’s as to what is expected of them – policy wise – and it is then their job to make sure the policy is carried out. Between the communication and the execution of the policy, however, a Minister’s bureaucratic advisers are expected to offer “free and frank advice” as to whether the measures being proposed are practical, affordable or even desirable. When that discussion ends, however, the responsibility for actually implementing the agreed policy rests almost entirely with the CEO – not the minister.

Herein lies the problem. A minister can lead his bureaucratic horses to water, but he cannot make them drink. While the CEOs and all the bureaucrats under them are deemed to be acting as their ministers’ “agents”, the ministers – their “principals” – are expected to let them get on with it. Direct interference by politicians in the day-to-day implementation of government policy is a big no-no.

Couldn’t the minister just cajole, or even threaten, his bureaucrats into doing his bidding behind the scenes? Well, yes, he could try. Unfortunately, that sort of behaviour has a habit of being leaked to the news media. Before the minister knows it, the State Services Commissioner is being asked to investigate, and the minister is being asked by the prime-minister to giver her one good reason why she shouldn’t ask him to surrender his ministerial warrant immediately.

The news media can also come in very handy in the event of a minister point-blank refusing to accept the “free and frank” advice of his bureaucrats. The fact that a minister’s “expert advisers” have unanimously pronounced his policies to be impractical, unaffordable and undesirable – only to be ignored – will always be front-page news. Especially when the details of that official advice are helpfully released to a TV network under the Official Information Act, or passed to a press gallery journalist in a plain brown envelope.

How can this be democratic? Surely, if a political party, or parties, are elected on the basis of a particular set of economic and social policies, then the sort of bureaucratic obstructionism (or outright subversion) described above can only be described as running completely counter to the government’s democratic mandate?

The sad answer to these politically charged questions is that the executive arm of the New Zealand state is not designed to serve democracy – but to thwart it. It was reconfigured in the 1980s to make sure that the way the populist National Party prime minister, Rob Muldoon, governed New Zealand could never be replicated.

As both Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Muldoon intervened directly and repeatedly in the country’s economy. He froze wages and prices and fixed rents and interest rates. He committed the country to “Think Big”, a vast programme of public works and joint-venture energy projects. The strong objections of Muldoon’s bureaucratic advisers – particularly those in the Treasury – were brusquely overruled. The whole point of the State Sector Act was to sever the cables that had connected the levers in Muldoon’s hands to the big economic and administrative engines powering post-war New Zealand.

That this frankly undemocratic system has functioned more-or-less effectively for so long is due to the acceptance by all but one of the country’s major political parties that a return to the bad old days of “Muldoonism” would be disastrous for New Zealand. The odd party out is, of course, NZ First – whose leader, Winston Peters (another populist) has always been a great admirer of Rob Muldoon.

If you have ever wondered why Peters attracts so much venom from practically the entire political class: politicians, journalists, civil servants and business lobbyists; it’s because they understand that any politician who pledges to fulfil his party’s promises by reintroducing a “hands-on” approach to economic management cannot avoid exposing the undemocratic coding at the core of government management in New Zealand.

Now, it may be that Shane Jones simply fancies himself as an economic czar surrounded by cronies and flunkies who treat his word as law. And that, I’m prepared to concede, is a profoundly disturbing picture! More likely, however, is that Jones is lashing out in frustration against a system specifically designed to thwart the promises and plans of populist politicians like himself and his leader.

I don’t believe it’s his ego that Jones is seeking to gratify – but the people’s will.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 30 April 2018.


The Veteran said...

People who know Shane Jones understand that the first of your two scenarios is the one in play here.

NickJ said...

Thank God for Shane Jones. Yes Chris you explain the history of the move away from political control that was last demonstrated by the Muldoon government, and despite my aversion for his regime they were democratically elected to "rule". I for one don"t elect my bureaucratic "masters", I expect them to respond to my vote by obeying whoever has the majority, regardless of "rational" argument.

This government missed an ideal opportunity to re-establish their prerogative over the Public Service when the recent Curran event occurred. They should have made an example of the SOEs management team.

Do we have an alternative? I contend that the old model prior to the State Sector Act, (prior to the enshrining of "business values" and "expertise" proven by way of management degrees such as MBAs worked better). It cost less per head and delivered what the elected government required of it. It also had central to it a service ethos, we the public were served. The current model at its heart inverses this whole ethos.

greywarbler said...

A one sentence snap judgment from The Veteran. Seems to me that he, or she perhaps is likely to come from the group of functionaries who snap down their portcullises against every new idea. Such people find that maintaining an air of cynicism and fathomless knowledge enables them to never find the right time to do anything, thereby ensuring they never engineer a failure.

Pinger said...

Bureaucrats running their own (unelected) agenda has been the danger over the last 30 odd years.

Polly said...

Your article did not mention the sinking of the Taranaki/ oil and gas exploration; of which Shane Jones is a player.
I am not convinced of anything about him or the Winston Peters political party.
This Country is being run by a mess of Political parties.
Jacinda and Grant Robertson are lost in the kitchen which has to many flavours and cooks.
Bureaucrats will and always will, prosper in that environment.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Just as a matter of interest, how, specifically, do you frustrate ministers' desires to do stuff? I have a few sources I might tap, but that might take some time. So any information would be welcome.

BlisteringAttack said...

If you saw the bureaucrat 'contractors' running around Wellington and other places charging $150 + GST per hour you'll see what the bureaucracy has become.

Certainly not serving the public.

Kat said...

Previous govt parties: National, Act, United Future, Maori Party......
Current govt parties: Labour, NZ First, Greens....

Some parrots just keep repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating..........

Slugger said...

I recall in the early 2000's Christine Rankin, CEO of WINZ, who thought she was a kind of de facto politician.

And ran around Wellington in $2500 designer outfits giving her 'opinions' to whoever would listen to her.

Until Steve Maharey told her to fuck off.

NickJ said...

BlisteringAttack, you understate the rates, then there are the overblown salaries around the "civil service". Id contend that if you sacked the lot and started again that you wouldn't notice any drop in output as the whole thing is a little like the "industrial military complex" is there for the benefit of contractors, Deloittes, IT companies etc.

greywarbler said...

I have been catching up with Ms Rankin and comparing her to Shane Jones in style. Christine managed to be centre of attention wherever she was.

Christine Rankin has opened up about her terrifying ordeal as the chief executive of WINZ, revealing for the first time she had her own police protection squad.
"They believed that my life really was in danger," she told The AM Show on Thursday.
She claims the "ruthless" 1999 Labour-led government helped make her "public enemy number one", emotionally opening up on the show about the toll it took on her life.

Christine Rankin on Colin Craig: 'I was never allowed in that office ... › New Zealand
Sep 7, 2016 - Former Conservative Party chief executive Christine Rankin has slammed her former colleague Colin Craig during her evidence at his defamation trial this afternoon. Rankin has told the jury that she joined the political party because she wanted to work for Craig, who she saw as someone who "stood for a ...

The making of Christine Rankin legend.
"I just wanted to work. I didn't want to be on a benefit and my life has just done what it's done, which is astonishing."
Her father was a prison guard and she has written a book about her family life which could have helped her understand the difficult lives of people under WINZs tender care, but apparently not.
Former WINZ boss Christine Rankin calls Metiria Turei 'absolute ...
Jul 19, 2017 - Former head of Work and Income Christine Rankin has lashed out at Green co-leader Metiria Turei, calling her "absolutely disgraceful" for committing benefit fraud. Ms Turei recently admitted she lied while receiving the benefit 20 years ago, and Ms Rankin has called for WINZ to prosecute her. "I can't ...

Christine Rankin on being a grandmother | Now To Love
Sep 24, 2014 - From a wife (four times), single mum and beneficiary, through to the head of Work and Income, Families Commissioner, business consultant, motivational speaker, ... Now married for nearly six years herself to husband number four, builder Kim MacIntyre, Christine never expected to be wed so many times.

Christine Rankin says she was a victim of mesh surgery |
Jun 5, 2017 - Former CEO of The Sake of our Children Trust and Families commissioner and former head of the Ministry of Social Development Christine Rankin at home in Taupo. She also plans to run for the Taupo mayoralty. Politician Christine Rankin has spoken candidly about her experience of vaginal mesh injury ...

I think Ms Rankin is too candid, enough publicity is enough.

Compare to that Shane Jones is a solid, sensible citizen. He watches pornography when he is bored away from home. He did book it up on his ministerial credit card which was a sloppy error. But I remember when Auckland local government was overturned and replaced with pirate privatisers, the first thing that one top guy did was rush off overseas with his wife to stay in an expensive hotel in a big city important to our NZ affairs, which I think cost $2000 for them for a couple of nights.
Now that is rorting with style. Shane is small potatoes, and no need to dig the dirt looking for huge melons. I think he will come up with some good policies and manage to annoy everybody which means that he isn't cosying up to anybody.

jh said...

Here's proof the government are using the media to insert Maori language into the culture while claiming it is part of the culture.
Kim Hill claimed they have to use it as it is "in the carter" The charter says:

g) reflect New Zealand’s cultural identity, including Māori language and culture:

"Justice Joe Williams who is chairing an inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal says the Maori language is in “crisis” and only urgent action will halt its decline. As older speakers of Maori die out they are not being replaced by enough younger people and the language now needs “life support”, the report says. Less than a quarter of New Zealand’s 53, Maori say they are fluent enough to hold a conversation in Te Reo Maori, and the number is declining every year. Justice Williams’ report dismisses perceptions of a government-sponsored revival since the 198s as “rhetoric”. “The notion that Te Reo is making steady forward progress, particularly among the young, is manifestly false,” it says. Minister for Maori Affairs and co-leader of the Maori party Pita Sharples said the problem is not just of the government’s making. “Really it is about getting the language into homes and families talking it, and that’s how it will survive,” Sharples said.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Friend of mine's "child" left the public service but was headhunted back as a contractor. They were sneered at a little by other contractors because they only charged $200 an hour, and some of them were getting $800.

JH, have you found a new obsession? WTF has all that got to do with the subject at hand?

Nick J said...

Grey, I'm not sure where Christine Rankin fits in, my observation is that she is so centred on herself that she fails to understand the principle of throwing the first stone.

greywarbler said...

Well Nick J Slugger referred to her and got me thinking that I remembered little about her past and now. She caused a lot of angst when she was working in parliament, seeming to be a person that aroused sympathy or interest in the public but getting Minister Steve Maharey on edge. Anything but a quiet, dedicated civil servant.

Shane Jones seems to have the same sort of populist attraction. But the barriers erected by the neolibs when there was so much ferment in the 1980-90s may pen him up and leave him impotent. We need to change and get NZ ticking along again so as to cope with the series of disasters, climate-wise, agriculture-wise, international financing-wise that will rain down on us probably between now and 2050.

Middle class NZ will be too busy running marathons, sporting with some new machinery, having pleasant holidays, or building new houses on higher ground still available after international predations. We need to have two economies, one with subsidised everything at a basic level so the ordinary people can have a life, and another where the wealthy can parade with style and please themselves.

I hope Shane can get through the maze of prating middle-class brainwashed professionals in bureaucracy following 'best practice' and dreaming up new laws with ever closer mesh screens to sort out the rough from the fine and good. I met a manager of an adult reading program whom I had worked with a decade ago. She left as it became too 'corporate'. I knew what she meant, it had lost its generous warm heart, now appearance and box-ticking was all.

Victor said...

"Now, it may be that Shane Jones simply fancies himself as an economic czar surrounded by cronies and flunkies who treat his word as law. And that, I’m prepared to concede, is a profoundly disturbing picture! More likely, however, is that Jones is lashing out in frustration against a system specifically designed to thwart the promises and plans of populist politicians like himself and his leader."

I strongly suspect that both explanations are true.

Ian said...

I read your descriptions of the two issues and it felt to me like you were describing the same thing from opposing points of view, so I expected the article to finish with a cynical punch line, along the lines of Victor's "I strongly suspect that both explanations are true".

I think Shane Jones would like wave his magic fairy wand and finds himself surrounded by people who don't believe in magic and frustrated by a system designed to thwart wizards and fairy godmothers.

Over the last 40+ years I keep coming across Kiwis who want instant gratification politics. People who think civil servants, process, parliamentary debate, select committees, political parties and journalists are just so much useless flim flam and red tape. They want to elect a strong leader who just fixes things.

Luckily this group is outnumbered by those of us not quite ready for such a radical change and are happy to have some gatekeepers and people willing to speak truth to power (and I don't mean the fourth estate or Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition - both of whom are usually ignored by cabinet ministers).

Victor said...


Cynical? Moi?