OnPoint by Keith Ng

JTF: Report filing paper shufflers

“Over the past eight years the bureaucracy has grown out of proportion to those parts of the state sector that actually serve the public... Since 2000, the number of bureaucrats has grown from 26,200 to 36,000.” - John Key

Sieving out (as Key put it) the “paper-shuffling and report-writing” bureaucrats from the civil servants who “make a real difference in people's lives” is tricky business.

According to StatsNZ's Quarterly Employment Survey (QES), there are 35,950 civil servants who are “mainly engaged in formulating and administering Central Government policy”. Treasury, on the other hand, says that there are 8,495 equivalent full-time staff working for “policy departments”.

Which figure tells us how many bureaucrats there are? Well, neither. They count different departments, but both lump everyone in a department into the same category, telling us very little about who does what.

The detailed breakdown of selected sectors provided by National actually show that the number of bureaucrats is likely to quite small. Even in the Ministry of Social Development, one of the government's largest departments, there were only 359 policy staff and 855 corporate and governance staff, compared with 8,291 service delivery staff, including those from Child, Youth and Families.

But the breakdown also proved Key's main point – though small, the number of these bureaucrats have grown faster than the rest of the government and faster than the rest of the economy since 2000. That means that the proportion of bureaucrats has increased.

So if there are more bureaucrats in 2006 than in 2000, does that mean there're too many? Only if the civil service was fine in 2000. And it wasn't, according to Deputy Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Professor Jonathan Boston.

“There was a widespread view that the cutbacks during the 1990s had been such that many departments were struggling. Many were employing large numbers of consultants because they didn't have the core staff that they needed, and there were various activities that were at risk because of limited capability. Even members of the National Party at the time accepted that there were some real issues facing the core public service in the late 1990s that would need to be addressed.”

Now that Labour has brought them back, how do we know if our paper-shuffling, reporting-writing bureaucrats are earning their keep?

“With difficulty, to be blunt,” says Boston. “Although we have a very elaborate system of specifying performance in advance, of monitoring performance, and then reporting on how well the performance has been, at the end of the day the non-financial stuff is not actually very useful in telling people whether or not you've got value for money.”

Just two weeks ago, Secretary of the Treasury John Whitehead voiced his concerns over the ability of government agencies in “achieving results and value for money”.

“I think it is fair to say our current level of connection and citizen focus is well short of where we can be,” says Whitehead. “We still don’t provide the performance information to drive that focus and we don’t measure and assess value for money in public service provision in ways that we could. There is a sense that performance measurement and assessment is treated by some as a compliance exercise or a risk to be avoided or minimised.”

But while these accountability measures are failing, the public service is not, according to the World Bank. Their Worldwide Governance Indicators collates survey data on governments around the world and ranks them on six key dimensions, including “Government Effectiveness”. This measures “the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government's commitment to such policies.”

The indicator took a dive in the late 90s when the civil servants thinned out, hitting rock bottom in 2000, but recovered when the bureaucrats started coming back. The bureaucracy, it seems, might have made a difference to the health of the whole public service.

In 2006, New Zealand ranked 8th out of 212 countries for Government Effectiveness.