It’s our public service, why don’t we get a say?

datePosted on 21:55, September 10th, 2009 by Anita

The government is

  • considering merging a variety of departments,
  • carving up others,
  • busy shutting down big chunks of others,
  • abolishing some services,
  • taking control of Institutes of Technology and Polytechs away from communities,
  • studying opening up national parks to mining,
  • re-re-restructuring the health system,
  • oh, the list goes on.

Every one of those changes is to our public service and it affects the public, yet the government is not allowing for public consultation on any of them. They can’t get away with the “we were elected on this platform” excuse or even this government’s TINA (“the recession forces us to do this”), this is straight forward exclusion of public participation.

We, both the left and the right, didn’t let Labour get away with it, why are we allowing John Key and friends to exclude us from decisions that so directly affect our lives?

20 Responses to “It’s our public service, why don’t we get a say?”

  1. Eddie Clark on September 10th, 2009 at 22:34

    I take the point, Anita, and totally agree with the general point. But even though the Nats are providing particularly obvious examples, the opportunities for genuine public participation in the executive process have always been limited, including under Labour (I wrote my thesis on this).

    Government should be allowed to govern, yes, you can’t impose constraints that make that impossible. But the executive and extended bureaucracy govern for us and on our behalf, and efficiency isn’t an excuse for ignoring that fact.

  2. Eddie Clark on September 10th, 2009 at 22:49

    And – duh – I didn’t read your last sentence. In which case I entirely agree – it sucked under Labour and it continues to suck under National.

  3. What would Hayek say on September 11th, 2009 at 07:16

    A semantic question Anita – government agencies serve the government and deliver goods/services to the public. They are not “ours”, but rather functions of the government. Voters may have an interest in the performance of these agencies in how they deliver services (quality, quantity etc) but these agencies remain a function of the state. A particular example is the department of Inland Revenue, which has as its primary reason for existence to obtain revenue from the public for Crown expenditure.

    You may want to be careful about what your asking for as by logical extension, a requirement that the public has a say in changes to the public sector, also means that the public should have a say in any increase in the size or scope of the public sector. This maybe the point your getting to in your last sentence.

    Ultimately it could be argued that you do get a say through your vote – now your point maybe that the exercise of elections once every three years is not delivering you the voter the desired level of policy detail that you require in order to make an informed choice. So potentially your argument maybe that the current electoral system and means of governance does not provide you the voter with your desired level of direct democracy.

    The next step is then what would be the advantages and disadvantages of greater public direct democracy. You could argue that an advantage is an enhanced level of voter enfranchisement (i.e. more voter involvement in government). How to achieve this becomes another interesting component – does this requirement active involvement in an existing political party to push for change, via lobbying or maybe more direct action – remember that when erecting the barricades you need to consider logistics – there can be days of not much excitement and it does get the throat sore shouting “hurrah” and “revolution” every so often, so I advise ensuring a good transport corridor, proximity to a brewary (which also solves the toilet problem), a mobile coffee cart possibly – I haven’t figured out who is supplying the croissants. Somethings will just have to be left to the individual to resolve.

  4. Graeme on September 11th, 2009 at 09:01

    How didn’t we let Labour get away with? Were there public submissions on the merger of WINZ and MSD (in part to get rid of Christine Rankin), or the creation of the MED super-ministry?

    Public hearings on Labour’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan and later Iraq?

    And didn’t most public consultation come through select committee processes? Allowing mining of schedule 4 land, and changing governance structures of polytechs will require legislation – during the passage of which we had a say under Labour, and will have a say under National.

    That’s not to say it’s ideal, but why do you think we didn’t let Labour get away with this, but are letting National?

  5. fraser on September 11th, 2009 at 12:21

    How didn’t we let Labour get away with?

    Can you picture the media storm if labour was passing this much legislation under urgency?

    OK – so thats not expressly stopping them get away with it – but there was vocal and well funded (in some cases) backlash against many things labour did towards the end.

    And at least with the last government the opposition, if not the public, got a chance to actually read the proposed changes before debating it.

    disclosure – in no way am i a labour voter – only did it once when i was 18 (many many years ago)

    and Hayek – if the state owns the public service, then who owns the state :-)

  6. What would Hayek say on September 11th, 2009 at 13:24

    Fraser – “if the state owns the public service, then who owns the state”

    You probably need a better political science/philosophy expert than me to provide a fulsome answer – Pablo probably might be a contender.

    Suffice to say there is still considerable scope for argument about the justification for the state depending on your personal value judgement. However major themes seem to coalesce around: transcendent sovereignty (monarchy), social contract (liberalism), public goods (Marx),

    The more useful question might be is it legitimate for this government to amend state agencies/organs to enable them to deliver the explicit or implicit promises/policies they were elected to deliver. And this takes us back to Anita’s post without diverting us into a long theoretical discussion.

  7. Anita on September 11th, 2009 at 13:24

    What would Hayek say,

    Do you know much about the Long Term Council Community Plan process? It seems like a possibly useful model to me in that it acknowledges that three yearly voting is not enough and that the governing body has an obligation to go out looking for genuine engagement.

  8. What would Hayek say on September 11th, 2009 at 14:25

    Anita – yes sadly I do know about the LTCCP. Actually I tend to think that they are quite good documents. Local government has a higher standard to meet than central government. Many central govt agencies would struggle to produce and equivalent document.

    I actually support engagement with the public, but know that even within the Local govt sphere that engagement is not always of a high quality. Parliament through the select committee process often operates to a higher standard.

    A number of the items you mention in your post are/will be subject to public scrutiny, however what does public participation involve and is that meaningful. This is something that could be debated for the current major social changes that are being proposed by the Ministry of Transport (Road safety) and Law Commission (Alcohol), whilst Ministers (the government) ultimately are responsible for these changes to a large extent the changes are beig driven by those agencies internal agenda’s and it could be argued that meaningful public consultation is not being enabled due to the public being swamped with too much information and lacking the time and resources to adequately engage.

  9. Bruce Hamilton on September 11th, 2009 at 15:47

    The public service is supposed to be the delivery service for the current gang in government.

    Unfortunately, the public service has, in recent decades, also become politicised by the appointment of favoured associates ( as in the gang sense ) to strategic positions in public entities. Both major parties have meddled.

    Sadly, the public service may inherit a new “executive” every three years, with consequences just like company takeovers. Culling of those people in perceived non-core or underperforming positions, or tainted appointees.

    The recent appointment of prime ministerial “minders” to departments illustrates that the new owners don’t believe some information provided by departments is valid, and may even distrust the notives of the employees. There’s also the trend to appoint aspiring gang novices to well remunerated admin positions around the senior managers.

    I’m not sure why skilled people would want to stay in the public service, when even their owners will not support, appreciate, or engage in meaningful dialogue with them. Public service is unappreciated at almost every level.

    The shareholders are also the clients, but they will vote more on personal perceptions of benefits from political parties, rather than public service structural issues.

    In two years time, current issues will have been consigned to distant memory.

  10. fraser on September 11th, 2009 at 16:41

    “…And this takes us back to Anita’s post without diverting us into a long theoretical discussion.”

    yep – fair enough on the “more useful question”, was just having a light hearted dig – no harm or deep thought intended.

    And nicely re-directed back to the topic :-) (cause its friday and who needs involved theory when it nearly quitting time)

  11. MollyByGolly on September 12th, 2009 at 10:30

    Some of what this government is doing to the public service was clearly signalled before the election: no privatisation this term; stopping the growth of the public sector; redirecting resources away from backrooms towards the frontline; focussing on “high quality” spending etc.

    Read between the lines of these statements and a lot of current changes are not surprising, particularly the drop in the number of public servants and the dismantling some services.

    As for mergers, this has long been the desire of the SSC and they can now promote this to a sympathetic govt – reducing the number of small depts reduces overhead costs (economies of scale), which fits perfectly with this govt’s focus on cutting costs.

    This is not to agree with the changes, but rather to ask, why is anyone surprised?

  12. Hugh on September 12th, 2009 at 10:59

    Any policy enacted by a government can always be criticised for lack of consultation.

    Consultation is an open ended process – no matter how much you consult, it’s always possible to consult more.

    There’s a general consensus for the need for consultation but no consensus definition of consultation; nothing that allows a political actor to say ‘I disagree with the government’s decision but I agree that consultation was undertaken’.

    While this is the situation, it’s hard not to treat complaints that the government didn’t undertake consultation as just a bunch of political hot air.

    (And yes, National were past masters of this in opposition)

  13. Ari on September 13th, 2009 at 22:07

    Some of what this government is doing to the public service was clearly signalled before the election: no privatisation this term; stopping the growth of the public sector; redirecting resources away from backrooms towards the frontline; focussing on “high quality” spending etc.

    Except none of those promises are really being lived up to- there is much redirecting of funds away from well-targetted high-quality spending, frontlines are being cut in addition to support staff, not to mention that many support staff cuts are forcing frontline staff to spend more time on support work themselves.

    The public sector has only grown so much recently because it was recovering from when National last cut it down below necessary levels.

    They may have signalled what they’re doing on some level, but it’s not what they said they’d do.

  14. Ag on September 14th, 2009 at 04:41

    Fraser – “if the state owns the public service, then who owns the state”

    I’ll have a crack at this. This is how it strikes me (right now, as I only just thought about it).

    Nobody owns the state, because it isn’t property in any meaningful sense. The state as an institution is prior to all laws, and all laws concerning property and its definition. Therefore, the state cannot be a form of property unless it makes itself one, and it has not, as far as I am aware.

    The state could conceivably sell any number of its rights and privileges, except the right to make laws and enforce them. If any state sold either privilege, it would no longer be a state.

  15. Eddie Clark on September 14th, 2009 at 11:20

    There’s a general consensus for the need for consultation but no consensus definition of consultation; nothing that allows a political actor to say ‘I disagree with the government’s decision but I agree that consultation was undertaken’.

    Hugh, that’s just not true. I’ve done a lot of work, professional and academic, on the (legal and to a lesser extent political) definition, nature, and utility of consultation. I can give you a long, long diatribe about all three if you really want.

  16. Lew on September 14th, 2009 at 11:42

    Eddie,

    I, for one, would love to read such a thing.

    L

  17. Hugh on September 14th, 2009 at 11:50

    Ag, there may be a formal legal definition of consultation that’s written up in a statue or civil service guideline somewhere, I’ll give you that. But that’s not the same as a public consensus.

  18. Eddie Clark on September 14th, 2009 at 12:24

    Lew:

    A full exploration will have to wait until the SJD proposal I’ve got floating around in the back of my head finds its way out (Democratic spaces within the administrative state, or some such similar title), but when I get home from work this evening I’ll pull together a very abbreviated discussion of the broad justifications for consultation, and the legal protections for the right, and post it.

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