On public service

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.

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