New approach transforms public service

CATHERINE HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 13/10/2012

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The public service is looking for more opportunities to work with the private sector, as it goes through one of its biggest cultural shifts in a quarter of a century.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie says the department is now much more business-like, with greater accountability at the top and a push to make departments collaborate.

Rennie, who joined the public service during the reform-laden 1980s, said the image of sluggish bureaucrats perpetuated by the old TV series Gliding On was far from reality these days.

Departments were more conscious of resources, people management and being more "customer focused".

And department heads bore heavier responsibilities.

Rennie said there was no hint that top executive talent was being deterred by the Government's accountability targets for public sector chief executives.

The 10 targets, which range from the specific to the very general, include reducing crime, beneficiary numbers and child abuse.

None of these targets could be met by one particular department, Rennie said, but he did not think CEOs were intimidated by them.

"It is a challenging assignment and each of those chief executives is having to think through, what does this approach mean for how they do their jobs, how they're supported, how they develop relationships with other agencies. That's exactly the kind of issues and conversations that this approach needs to unlock.

"I've now been commissioner for four years, I haven't seen any signs that this kind of approach is making it harder to appoint chief executives. Far from it."

Rennie said attitudes were changing in the public service, and he expected the private and public sectors would engage more closely in future. The Christchurch earthquake had forced civil servants to become more innovative and interact more closely with outside businesses and agencies.

While private-public partnerships in the prison system were a clear example of this kind of collaboration, other opportunities would be more subtle.

"Sometimes we might go out to the private sector and say, ‘this is the outcome we're wanting, can you come and work with us around some solutions to that problem?' " Also changing was the way the Government bought services. Where single departments had previously sought tenders, agencies were now buying in bulk through the "All of Government" programme.

In another example five departments had searched jointly for office accommodation in Wellington, Rennie said.

This might be challenging for some suppliers but presented opportunities for others.

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"The private sector, rightly, is expecting the public sector to demonstrate value to the taxpayer. All of Government procurement is a way we've been able to generate significant savings to the taxpayer already."

Changes were also afoot to make the career path of civil servants more interesting. Workers would be encouraged to broaden their CVs and work across the sector, something that had sometimes been difficult because of differences in pay or conditions.

"We'll be looking to remove the barriers for them to move across organisations, whether that's on a permanent or project basis," Rennie said.

There had been a pervading feeling in the public service that to get ahead, a worker had to stay in one organisation, working their way up through the ranks, the commissioner said.

"I'm sending strong signals now to the senior public service that I'm looking for people who have experience about working with diverse groups . . ."

"To put it simply, I think there's more of a message now to ‘get out, to get on'."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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