Archive for May 16th, 2008

On public service

May 16, 2008

This week New Zealanders lost something important. We often boast about the absence of corruption in our public life. After all, we’re not a big and powerful nation, and certainly not rich, but we have our integrity. Or did.

Now, for the first time in our modern history, we cannot feel smug about the propriety of our public services. As Norightturn puts it, corruption in the Immigration Service, “seems to be widespread and pervasive”. The revelation that in a three year period 19 cases of serious offences were proven against IS staff, including theft, bribery and fraud, is staggering. (How many more are pending? Or were dropped for various reasons?)

When I joined the public service in the early 1980s, it was undeniably a cosy, relaxed place to work. These aspects were ruthlessly lampooned in the play Glide Time and the TV series Gliding On. A friend recently suggested that the play and its TV series spin-off may have damaged the reputation of the public service in unintended ways. They reinforced notions of priviledge, laxity and waste, as Ian Fraser’s review of the original production illustrates.

They presented a distorted view. They missed the strong sense of, well, public service, that was very evident at times. Various government departments had contributed in critical ways to building NZ’s society and economy, and there was a genuine pride in being part of that. I never heard the “public” disparaged. We all understood why we were there. We also understood that we must be studiously non-partisan.

I’m not sure that we can show a clear link between the growing prejudice of the time against the public service, and the reforms of the late 1980s, but it certainly felt that way at the time. Further, at that time, some of us warned that destroying the unified public service and letting faux private-sector managerialism loose would diminish much of what was good in our public services.

So it has been sad to watch the State Services Commission straining to explain away so much in recent years, and to see ministers fall. Other factors have played a part in this story, but when we come to look for solutions, perhaps we should look at what we threw away so lightly all those years ago.


NZ Immigration Service review needs widening

May 16, 2008

More details today on the review of the Pacific Division of the Workforce group in the Department of Labour. The DoL’s press release assures us that it will be a “wide ranging and comprehensive review”, and that the Secretary of Labour, Christopher Blake, is concerned about serious allegations about processing of Pacific applications and is “determined to deal with them thoroughly.”

To be fair, Blake announced the review on 22 April. The terms of reference are available as a pdf here. They do include “high level examination of integrity and probity issues and their linkages with work flow management.”

However, the announcement was framed in a way that undermines the latest assurances.

The review, it was said, aimed “to identify areas where it could improve and develop the services it provides to Pacific migrants.” While, “The Division has been particularly successful in building the Department’s relations with Pacific people and employers… we know that we can build on the good work that has already been done, and develop our services.”

We also learn only today that allegations had been received of 19 cases of “fraud, theft, unauthorised travel and failure to follow procedures” between 2004 and 2007. These are said to be “historical”, just as the Police Dept tried to pass off some of the relatively recent allegations against its staff as “historical” last year. It all reeks of spin.

National are calling for the review to be widened beyond the Pacific Division, but don’t seem to have much evidence for the need to broaden the scope in that way.

There are broader issues, and these got a good hearing this morning on Radio NZ. Tino Pereira from the Wellington Samoan Advisory Council and Auckland lawyer Olinda Woodroffe provided a Pacific perspective on the concerns that need to be addressed.

There is something of a culture clash in terms of expectations when Pacific people hold official positions. This is not something that a Palangi like me can talk about with authority, but Woodroffe did most eloquently. It does need to be sorted.

Pereira made the point that before the Pacific Division was established, the Immigration Service was regarded by Pacific people as the last bastion of colonialism.

We need a thorough review of the Pacific Division, and one which is wider than that announced last month, though not in the way National envisages. It should take into account the pressures on staff to meet various cultural obligations, and procedures for avoiding corruption allegations in the future.

I am not sure that we have been told who is conducting the review, but it is likely that more thought needs to be given to that, so that these wider issues can be addressed. Most important, we need openness, not spin.