The responsibilities of the Public Service are to serve the Government of the day, as well as take a medium to long-term, stewardship perspective to support New Zealand. This requires a Public Service that values foresight, to think, plan and manage with the future interests of citizens at front and centre.
The Public Service has access to, and can develop, data and analysis that can assist:
• citizens by providing clear and transparent information around the complex issues facing New Zealand
• political parties to develop policies in advance of a General Election
• new Ministers get to grips with their portfolios.
New Zealand’s Public Service generally performs efficiently and responsively. This success has occurred at the departmental level. This is not sufficient as the complex problems facing New Zealand require a Public Service that can take a holistic view across and within sectors. The current system has encouraged the narrowing of each department’s focus to its own particular outputs and a short-term horizon. This has been reflected in the requirements imposed throughout the public sector, which support reporting at the departmental level.
A number of requirements exist to support strategic and medium term thinking at the departmental level, including, but not exclusive to:
• strategic intentions reporting under section 38 of the Public Finance Act 1989 - explain the nature and scope of the department’s functions and intended operations, and how the department intends to manage its functions and operations
• long-term investment plans (for investment-intensive agencies only) - describe an agency's investment journey over a ten-year horizon to support delivery of the agency’s long term goals
• four-year plans - integrated agency plans, showing how strategic objectives and interventions will be delivered
• performance improvement framework – provide chief executives with performance improvement information within their agencies.
The New Zealand Treasury also produces documents supporting a medium term view, including, but not exclusive to:
• statement on the long-term fiscal position - indicates possible trends in spending, revenue, operating balance and debt over a forty year period, based on current policy settings and recent history
• pre-election fiscal and economic update - New Zealand’s current and future economic and fiscal climate before a general election, and what risks New Zealand may face over a four-year period.
Some departments also issue public reports on the key issues covering their particular sector (i.e. Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Defence). However, many departments do not publish this type of longer-term analysis. Some form of statutory obligation might assist this to happen.
A Public Service Long-term Insights Briefing
A range of options are being considered to ensure a medium to long term view is taken within the public sector. One proposal would be a legislative requirement to prepare a sector level long-term insights briefing mid-way through the electoral cycle that would outline forecast key trends, opportunities and risks in a sector.
The briefing would be prepared by a lead department or Ministry in a sector, as nominated by the Commissioner, but its contents would be agreed by all chief executives within the relevant sector. The time horizon of the briefing would be agreed within the sector depending on the needs of the sector and the nature and variability of services and assets. The briefing would go through a consultation process to ensure alignment and consistency. This may include a consultation process with the Public Services Commission, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand Treasury and Office of the Auditor-General.
The briefing would support and complement existing legislative and non-legislative requirements within the public sector, including reporting outlined within the Public Finance Act. Consideration would also be given to current and planned requirements to avoid duplication. Any new mechanisms supporting open and transparent government, including the potential creation of an Independent Fiscal Institution, would also be considered.
Advantages of a briefing would include:
• a more informed citizenry through more transparent information
• transparent information provided to political parties regarding the country’s longer-term trends and policy realities
• collaboration across departments to produce a holistic view of a sector, and
• the ability of a new Minister to understand the key issues in their portfolio at an earlier date.
These advantages would need to be balanced with the relationship between chief executives and the Ministers of the day. Information provided through the briefing would be required to be politically neutral, open and transparent.
Proposal for a Long-term Insights Briefing
Characteristics of a sector level briefing supporting stewardship by covering the medium to long term could include:
• a document produced mid-way through each election cycle (this could occur two years after an election and one year before an election)
• forecast key trends, opportunities and risks in a sector over the medium to long term
• a responsibility on relevant sector chief executives to produce the briefing, with support from relevant chief executives to help inform development.
• a requirement to produce a Long-term Insights Briefing to be included in the Act.
There are other options to support the provision of information to the public and political parties:
• officials could be seconded to the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and / or other key shadow portfolios
• Departments could have a more formalised role providing long-term information on key trends, opportunities and risks to Parliamentary Select Committees.