State Services Commissioner talks of the "spirit of service" in his address to international conference

Wave goodbye to the “dark satanic mills” of New Public Management, the 1980s and Rogernomics; say hello to aroha, “the spirit of service” and “an ethic of care”.

State Services Commissioner opening address to IRSPM conference hosted by SOG

These are phrases from the opening address and following panel discussion of the XXIII Annual Conference of the International Research Society for Public Management, hosted by the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington.

Together they capture the distance travelled – to lesser or greater degrees – by the public service in New Zealand and internationally, and where its future lies, according to the experts gathered.

In his address, Peter Hughes, New Zealand State Services Commissioner and Head of State Services, said he starts every speech talking about the “spirit of service” (“regardless of the audience—private sector, public sector, non-government”) and is intent on it being enshrined in the Government’s reforms to the State Sector Act 1988.

“I believe that public service is something we should acknowledge, celebrate and reward, and, disappointingly, as you know, all too often the reverse happens in our society,” he said.

Also Chair of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, a consortium of governments, universities and business schools from Australia and New Zealand, including the New Zealand Government and Victoria University of Wellington, Hughes sees the spirit of service threaded through the New Zealand public service and wants the new legislation to have “a very clear purpose statement” encapsulating the role.

That role includes “a total focus on the client, citizen or customer, and that’s about opening our hearts and our minds, our resources and our time, totally to the needs of others, and being totally focused on them and their needs.

“Secondly, for me, it’s about bringing the right attitude to that. It’s not that we’re subservient as public servants in any way but that we approach our work with humility. When you think about it, public servants stand out there with the might of the state at our backs, and so we need to bring humility and compassion to our work.”

Talking about the spirit of service “has been the most powerful thing I’ve done; it eclipses everything else by hundreds of percent”, said Hughes.

The public service is about people “and that point of connection requires all the things I’ve talked about in terms of spirit of service to our citizens and our country”.

Panellist Dr Daryn Bean, Deputy Chief Executive (Strategic and Corporate Services) at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, equated such a spirit with Māori concepts like aroha – which encompasses love, pity, concern, compassion and empathy.

“It just takes a slightly different perspective, I would say, if you apply a Māori way of thinking or a Māori way of seeing, a Māori way of listening, a Māori way of feeling – all those things come together and present themselves as a spirit of service.”

Michael Macaulay, Professor of Public Administration in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government and a specialist in ethics and integrity, recalled his years as a magistrate in the United Kingdom.

“What always struck me is we could never actually do what we wanted to do. We could never give people in need of genuine care the care they needed. We were locked into a process. Because the ethic we were looking at was an ethic of justice … It was a process-driven ethic. What we wanted to do was offer an ethic of care.”

In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “has demonstrated what an ethic of care looks like” and has “basically torn up 25 years of academic research on ethical leadership” with the example she has set, said Macaulay.

Prioritising people over systems and processes is the key, he said.

“Actually recognising the public service requires the public and the public are humans, and we need to emphasise that ethic of care so we can see, we can appreciate, our differences but try and work on things that unite us at a human and emotional level. I think that is a big ethical challenge but I think it’s one we can grasp.”

New thinking and changing circumstances can see radical shifts in public service jobs, as evidenced in new fire service functions in the UK talked about by Catherine Needham, Professor of Public Policy and Public Management at the University of Birmingham’s Health Services Management Centre.

With house fires reduced by as much as half, said Needham, the fire service has had to find a new role for itself.

“And it’s largely done that through public health. Now it does home visits. While there checking smoke alarms, it also looks for early signs of dementia, it’s got ‘sloppy slippers’ campaigns for falls, it asks people if they’ve got any issues around debt management, loneliness, weight management.

“If you’ve gone into the fire service to put out fires and rescue cats from trees this is a whole new set of skills for you. So we’ve been working with them on how you might train and equip for what is not a ‘command and control’ situation but one where you have to establish a rapport quickly, build trust, work in a very quick way to appraise the situation.”

As well as learning new skills, organisations – private sector as well as public – may need to rethink ideas of leadership.

Rosemary O’Leary, Edwin O Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration and Director of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Kansas in the United States, is co-author of Leading in Place: Leadership Through Different Eyes.

For the book, published last year, she and co-author Dr Rita M Hilton surveyed 300 women in four countries, including New Zealand.

Among their findings is that nearly half the women “were turning down positions of leadership because they didn’t mesh with their values. These were articulated to us as public service values, wanting to make a difference, but they did not see a match in organisations they’d been invited to apply to”.

At the same time, said O’Leary, the women often demonstrated the title of their book: leading in place (but without the top job title).

“Most of the women we spoke to talked about leadership in terms of behaviour rather than position. They said, ‘I am leading but nobody’s noticing.’

“We said, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear the sound, was there a sound? If a woman is showing behaviour that is leadership behaviour underneath the CEO level but nobody’s observing it, nobody’s rewarding it, is it still leadership behaviour? And we’re saying yes, that’s leadership behaviour, and those are the people we need to nurture and reward for the leadership they show on a day to day basis.”

Women told them: “The future is ‘holacracies’, more flat organisations where power and management and leadership don’t necessarily reside in the executive suite, it spreads across individuals within the organisation.”

It is an issue affecting men as well as women, said O’Leary.

“The point is, let’s reward those people who lead but don’t necessarily have that position of power. Because those are the people who undergird our organisations now and in the future.”

As Dr Daryn Bean’s connection of them to aroha showed, the fundamentals of the spirit of service and an ethic of care are not new ideas, said Wolfgang Dreschler, Professor of Governance at the Ragnar Nurske Department of Innovation and Governance at TalTech in Estonia and an associate and advisory board member at the Davis Center at Harvard University in the US.

“It took a lot of very charismatic people, a lot of big disappointments against the dark satanic mills of the New Public Management, to get us back into an area where we can refocus on the human person again. But every single non-western system also has in its optimal form at its core the radical orientation towards the people. The idea that human happiness is the core of PA [public administration] starts in western PA in the 17th century and it starts in Confucian PA already around the year 1000. This is a Song Dynasty idea.”