Operation at speed has required a real shift in mindset among officials, which hasn’t been easy to absorb or to manage.
Leaders in New Zealand have great confidence in their organisations’ abilities to operate a responsive service but this is not shared to the same extent by their colleagues in lower grades.
In response to the statement my organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs, 90% of leaders agreed, compared with 72% of the whole New Zealand sample.
And, while New Zealand leaders consistently scored among the top two or three countries on all statements outlining their environment to support change, average weighted responses across the country’s whole cohort put it in the lowest two countries against of these statements.
There was also disparity between leaders and more junior grades about the response to the pandemic. While nine in ten leaders strongly agreed that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present three years before the pandemic, strong agreement was registered by just 53% of managers and by 56% of non-managers (see box).
Similarly, while eight in ten Kiwi leaders agreed that they are able to quickly and effectively capitalise on opportunities that arise from uncertainty, agreement among more junior staff was around 50%.
Since 2017, New Zealand has established a cohort of more than 1,000 leaders – Te Pae Turuki, the Public Service Leaders Group – which adhere to centrally defined standards of conduct and participate in centrally coordinated development programmes.
However, personnel management is devolved at grades below leadership level, which may explain some discrepancies in scoring. Almost all HR issues relating to pay, conditions, recruitment and dismissal are delegated to ministries, so diverse employment arrangements have arisen.
Despite this, respondents were generally satisfied with their HR capabilities, with 72% agreeing their organisation proactively brings together people with diverse skills and approaches to solve problems – and 100% of the leadership group agreed. However, confidence was more subdued as to organisations’ ability to hire new talent as and when it’s needed, at 45% agreement overall and 60% among leaders. Hiring capabilities may be affected by budgetary pressures: only 31% were satisfied they had sufficient budget for pursuing change, versus 44% who disagreed.
Collaboration could be improved: just 46% agreed that they have an open workflow and knowledge exchange with other government organisations and 48% that there are very few barriers in place to working closely with other departments.
A new Public Service Act to address this came onto the statute books in July 2020. At the Global Government Summit in early 2021, Hannah Cameron, deputy commissioner of New Zealand’s State Services Commission, said previous operational freedoms had hit alignment and cooperation between ministries, and the reforms aimed to facilitate greater collaboration to optimise outcomes for citizens.
Recent efforts by senior public servants to row back on this autonomy were reflected in leaders’ responses – for example, only six of the ten agreed that individuals and teams have autonomy to design their own solutions (Fig 28) and that officials are empowered to continually question processes and solutions to make improvements. However, agreement with these statements among lower grades was marginally higher.
Behind the scenes: New Zealand’s Covid-19 border closures
Before Covid-19 swept across the world, New Zealand Customs Service was processing up to 60,000 airline passengers a day as well as collecting import and export taxes.
Within a few days of the virus coming into the country, the government closed the borders to foreign travellers and mandated 14 days’ managed isolation for returning citizens. Immediately, traffic fell to around 300 passengers per day. The response certainly stemmed the spread of Covid: even at the peak of transmission in April 2020, the country was recording 89 new cases a day and, by August 2021, only 26 people had died.
While it may seem to the outside world that this swift, effective action has meant that life within New Zealand was not unduly affected by the pandemic, it created unprecedented challenges for many civil service organisations, not least Customs.
Janine Foster, director of risk, security and assurance at Customs, suspects that the situation created by Covid might explain why the lower-grade respondents gave less positive answers than their leaders.
She says that for Customs, responding to Covid has been “our entire focus every day since February last year”, with constant major changes that needed rapid implementation.
Airport closures, which led to hundreds of Customs staff being redeployed to other functions such as contact tracing, gave way to travel bubbles with Australia and other neighbouring countries, effectively creating two airports on one site. Both zones needed to be staffed until the travel bubbles were suspended.
The collection of taxes and duties was made more flexible to support importers and exporters, producing more administrative changes. Then, at the end of 2020, the department was given two weeks’ notice that it would also being take charge of managing the 24/7 quarantine function at the 16 maritime ports.
Suddenly, small towns such as Opua in the far North Island – the first port for overseas yachts arriving after crossing the Pacific Ocean – needed 25 people to oversee the arrival of commercial and pleasure craft, when normally one person would do.
Foster says legislative change has been “written at speeds it’s never been written at before” and, on several occasions, policy was formulated with little or no consideration of how difficult it would be to implement. She adds that while Customs staff might normally handle one or two legislative changes a year, they have implemented many more in the past 18 months.
Foster is proud that to date the agency has managed to avoid making redundancies, but she estimates that around two-thirds of Customs’ 1,500 staff have had to be shifted into new roles at least once over the course of the pandemic.
“This has put massive amounts of pressure on people who are not used to operating at speed,” she says. “Civil servants are used to doing things right, not fast.” This has required a real shift in mindset among officials, she says, which hasn’t been easy to absorb or to manage.
“From a strategic perspective, it’s been very, very difficult to plan. It’s just been a case of responding day to day.”
Foster says the Public Service Act was enacted at just the right time to optimise the country’s crisis response. She notes that the law has formalised the role of the public service to provide free, frank advice to support the government to do what it needs to do, and it also allows for the creation of executive boards – formal bodies comprising the chief executives of various ministries that will work together to achieve aligned objectives.
The first of these to be established was the Border Executive Board, hosted by Customs and populated by the heads of other agencies with an interest in borders, such as health, trade and transport.
“I would have to say that Customs has been more responsive to new demands in the last 18 months than it could ever have imagined. If someone had said to us two years ago, ‘do you think you could deal with this sort of change?’, no one would have said yes.
“I do think people feel more confident that even if they don’t know everything, actually it turns out they don’t need to – they can still make a good decision based on what they do know, and change it later if need be.”