How to build governments which work

Max Rashbrooke argues that the failures of the market-based reforms of the 1980s point to a need for more democracy, not more reliance on markets.

IGPS researcher Max Rashbrooke argues that ambitious reforms will be needed if we are to get the high-quality government that we deserve and need [Image: Matt Bialostocki]
IGPS researcher Max Rashbrooke argues that ambitious reforms will be needed if we are to get the high-quality government that we deserve and need. [Image: Matt Bialostocki]

Do we, as New Zealanders, have the government we deserve? That was effectively the question that Chris Hipkins, one of our most powerful ministers, asked earlier this month when launching a consultation on what could be the biggest shakeup of government's internal workings in 30 years.

His basic pitch was that the 1988 State Sector Act, a key part of the sweeping political and economic reforms of that period, had been world leading in its time, but was no longer fit for purpose. It set up each government department very much as its own fiefdom, making it hard for agencies to work together on complex problems in the way that the public clearly wants them to.

There should be "no wrong door" for people approaching the government, Hipkins proclaimed: any public servant they contact should be able to help, or at least ensure a seamless transfer between agencies.

The proposed reforms he set out, and on which the public is now being asked to have its say, seem completely sensible and should be supported. But they do not necessarily address the biggest problems with the way our government works and the quality of the services it provides us.

The director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Simon Chapple, has already pointed to the erosion of an independent public service, one ready to provide genuinely free and frank advice, as a major problem. To this I would add two deep-lying concerns.

One is to do with the government's reliance on private contractors to carry out much of its work, alongside an absence of proper regulation in many areas and other recent retreats from what was once core government activity. The second is our relative reluctance to use some of the most exciting democratic innovations springing up around the world, most of which are about finding new, exciting and effective ways to get citizens more directly involved in shaping policy.

The thread connecting these two ideas is, quite simply, the need to improve how government works. The market-based reforms we have embarked on since the 1980s were supposed to deliver better services at lower cost. In this attempt we were not alone, but rather mimicking changes across the Anglosphere, a set of countries that includes ourselves, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

But as I set out in my new work, Government for the Public Good: the Surprising Science of Large-Scale Collective Action, the market-based drive has in many ways been a failure. Some things have improved, of course: no one wants to return to the days when the Post Office provided for all our telecommunications needs.

But the evidence also points to many problems, such as government's retreat from providing high-quality state housing, which has exacerbated the homelessness crisis, or the unwillingness to properly regulate companies that led to disasters such as Pike River and leaky homes.

If market-based reforms have generally failed to deliver on their promises – as the evidence compiled in my book suggests – we have to find other ways to improve the quality of the public services on which we all rely. A much more promising route is to draw more on the empowered democratic discussion of ordinary citizens.

Around the world, governments have been creating forums – going by the name of citizens' assemblies, participatory budgeting and other terms – that encourage good collective discussion and allow citizens to intelligently shape policy in very direct ways.

In Melbourne, a citizens' assembly has laid the foundation for the city's 10-year financial strategy. In Canada, a similar group of citizens has profoundly shaped the country's mental health action plan.

In Brazil, tens of thousands of people every year help directly determine a portion of their city's infrastructure budget. Far from being an unrealistic ideal, these forums are already highly effective, and probably represent our best hope of creating governments that are truly fit for the 21st century.

In other words, more democracy, not more markets, is the key to solving our collective problems. Breaking down the barriers between government agencies, as Hipkins seeks to do, is important. But yet more ambitious reforms will be needed if we are, in fact, to get the high-quality government that we all deserve and need.

  • Max Rashbrooke is a senior associate in the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. This opinion piece was originally published on the New Zealand Herald website.