Building public service excellence

  • Rt Hon Winston Peters
Foreign Affairs

Speech to the Pacific Public Service Commissioners Conference

Grand Hall, Parliament

Good morning.

It is a pleasure to be here at this important gathering of Pacific public sector leaders.

New Zealand is very happy to be hosting you, our Pacific whānau, here in Wellington, at the Grand Hall of Parliament.

New Zealand is a Pacific country and we are linked by history, culture, politics, and demographics.

As part of the Pacific family, New Zealand is conscious that our identity, our national security and our prosperity are inextricably linked. We have, in a very genuine sense, a shared Pacific destiny.

The Pacific Public Service Commissioners Conference has been meeting annually for 15 years to help shape that destiny by sharing information and experience of public sector reform across the Pacific.

This mission is strongly aligned with New Zealand’s values, as an effective public service is instrumental in supporting good governance, transparency, human rights, the rule of law, and sustained democracy.

On your agenda that you have been discussing ethics, leadership, and the challenges of working with Ministers. The essence of public service leadership is the ability to communicate, without fear or favour, the advice a Minister needs to hear. The provision of free and frank advice and the effective and timely implementation of a Government’s decisions are public sector cornerstones of effective democratic institutions.

New Zealand is blessed with one of the best Public Services in the world, and it has been a key contributor to New Zealand being one of only nine countries to have sustained continuous parliamentary democracy since 1854.

However, we live in a rapidly changing world and here in the Pacific we are by no means immune to global and regional change.

Some change is bad. Climate change is one of the great challenges of our age. While everyone is feeling its impacts, it poses a particular threat for low-lying small island states. The Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now, agreed by the Pacific Island Forum last month, recognises the climate change crisis and demands greater international action. Even more recently, our thoughts have been with the people of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

Some change can be good. The communications revolution, for example, continues to open up new opportunities for the open and transparent sharing of information. Anyone with an internet connection or a smartphone can read the Kainaki II Declaration themselves. While social media can feel a bit like the wild west, we have unprecedented ability for the Government and the public sector to share information with our people and invite them to hold us to account.

And change is often uncertain. The Pacific has  become an increasingly contested strategic space. This brings opportunities and risks and New Zealand knows that we cannot take our Pacific partnerships for granted.

In a changing world, reform is important; and New Zealand is recognised for its willingness to engage in change and reform.

The Grand Hall itself is a symbol of this.

It was built as the home of the Legislative Council, but after almost 100 years of service as New Zealand’s Upper House, the Legislative Council voted itself out of existence in 1950. While an important tradition, the Upper House was not viewed as adding value to the legislative process so was disestablished with cross-party support.

New Zealand is a global leader in public sector reform. From the 1912 Public Service Act, to the 1988 State Sector Act, to the proposed new Public Service Act being considered by parliament this year, New Zealand has been at the forefront of striving for public sector excellence.

We don’t get everything right, but we learn from our mistakes and keep building a better system. As a result, not only do we have the lowest levels of perceived public sector corruption, as measured by Transparency International, we are rated highest for budget transparency by the Open Budget Index and routinely perform well in measures of effectiveness and efficiency, alongside the likes of Scandinavian countries and Singapore. We are proud to be one of the first countries in the world to implement a well-being budget, where success is measured by improvements in quality of life not just economic outcomes.

The proposed new Public Service Act seeks to balance the strengths of the current system while improving agility and adaptability to respond to complexity and change. It will enable the public service to join up services around New Zealanders’ needs, secure public trust and confidence, and ensure the public service remains well placed to service New Zealand in the future. The Act affirms the constitutional role of the public service in supporting New Zealand’s democratic form of government and acknowledges “a spirit of service” as fundamental to the public service.

These underlying challenges – adapting to change, joining up services, and retaining public trust – are universal. Every Public Service Commissioner in this room will be wrestling with these issues in some form. But every country’s context is unique, and it is vital that Pacific Island countries can develop Pacific Island solutions to these challenges.

Just as our understanding of our public sector has matured, so has our understanding of New Zealand’s role in the Pacific.

The New Zealand government’s Pacific Reset recognises that we must, we need and we should be doing more to make a difference in the region.

The New Zealand Cabinet has adopted a set of five principles to guide our Pacific engagement. These five principles speak clearly to the way New Zealand would like to partner with you on public sector strengthening.

First, to demonstrate a depth of understanding. Opportunities to meet together, like this conference, help us to understand each other’s needs and how we can work together to make a difference.

Second, to exhibit friendship. Our relationship is not just a transaction, we are old friends confronting new challenges together.

Third, to strive for solutions of mutual benefit. Our shared Pacific destiny means that strong Pacific Island nations make for a stronger New Zealand. We are not just charitable donors, we are your partners in development.

Fourth, to achieve collective ambition. By taking action on agreed priorities. Talking together is important, but it only makes a difference if it leads to action.

And finally, to seek sustainability. Not just for now, but for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren and all those who follow after.

These principles are backed up by putting money where our mouth is.

More visits. The last year has seen an unprecedented number of Ministerial delegations to the Pacific. Meeting face-to-face on your land to strengthen our partnership together.

More ODA. Which was increased by nearly 30 percent, 714 million dollars, in Budget 2018 to support our contribution to global development, including in the Pacific. 

More focus on climate change. Here at home the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill seeks to ensure that New Zealand is playing its part in reducing emissions and is currently in select committee. And at least half of New Zealand’s 300 million dollar global climate finance commitment has been ring-fenced to support our Pacific neighbours’ resilience and response to climate change.

More support for strengthening governance including transparency, human rights, inclusivity of disadvantaged groups, and public sector excellence. Which is why I am here talking with you today.

While change brings with it uncertainty, this is not a time for timidity, it is a time for action.

I see that you have an action planning session on the future of this Conference on your agenda this afternoon.

We all need strong public services to support government and citizens through times of change. So be bold in your vision and know that New Zealand is with you.