Vapid slogans and other top-level public sector vices

When I wrote last week about Gabs Makhlouf, outgoing Secretary to the Treasury (whose serious misjudgements around the “Budget leak” mean he really should already have gone), a former Treasury official got in touch to say that while what I said seemed reasonable, if anything I was probably a bit too generous to Makhlouf.  Perhaps, but it is probably better to err on that side.

Perhaps what my former colleague had in mind was something like the perspectives –  raw and brutal – in a truly remarkable column published at The Spinoff by Tony Burton, formerly (until just last month) the deputy chief economist at The Treasury.  The title tells you most of what you need to know: “How bosses’ obsession with vapid slogans borked the public sector”.  One can only assume Tony doesn’t intend to look for work in the New Zealand public sector ever again…or at least for not as long as Peter Hughes, and the CEs appointed in his image and likeness, are in place  (Tony’s background was as a UK academic, so I guess he can always head back there).    Anyone with the slightest interest in the degraded state of policy advice and the New Zealand public service should read it.

The first paragraph will give you a taster

Sometimes on a Tuesday morning you may hear a low, vaguely rhythmic rumble coming from a Treasury meeting room. A handful of its middle-aged Pakeha bureaucrats will have descended from the department’s working floors where budgets and economic predictions are done to assemble around the table. Stalin humiliated his politburo by forcing them to sing along to a recording of wolves howling. The Treasury leaders are probably attempting a waiata, but the sound they produce is a drone of submission eerily similar to its Soviet precursor. Welcome to the New Zealand public service in 2019.

and this, of The Treasury

The collapse in the organisation’s expertise has been so profound that Treasury even appointed an HR professional to the minister of finance’s office. Think about that for moment. The Treasury are government’s main economic and fiscal experts. An important way for Treasury to help the minister of finance is to provide some of those experts for his office. Yet Treasury appointed someone whose area of knowledge is running Treasury as an organisation. Imagine you went to see a GP and were told the office manager was the most qualified person in the practise to provide medical advice. That is the position Grant Robertson is in.

If anything, he seems to have it in for Peter Hughes even more than for Makhlouf (I guess the latter will be gone next week, while the former rules the roost of the New Zealand public service).  Of Hughes as head of MSD (Burton worked in MSD when he first came to New Zealand)

One of his first acts was to command all staff to heed ‘Peter’s Principles’, of which there were 10. (Yes, he really did issue 10 commandments from on high, though I understand it didn’t take 40 days.) The status given to expertise in the organisation’s culture is best exemplified by the last principle: “’Just do it!’ means … just do it”.


There are a few bits where I’d disagree with his emphasis or interpretation (about history before his time) but it is really important reading –  entertaining, passionate, disdainful even, but raising profoundly serious concerns.  He doesn’t really offer solutions, but the first step to a solution has to be a broader awareness and acceptance of the problem.   There is no sign yet of that, and thus it remains difficult to be optimistic that anything will be much better when Peter Hughes finally gets round to appointing a new Secretary to the Treasury.

Nor is it clear that even the government, let alone the Opposition, really cares.

But New Zealanders pay the price for this decline and fall.

UPDATE:     A reader with knowledge of the secondees to Robertson’s office got in touch and suggested that the claim (see above) that “an HR professional” was appointed as one of Treasury’s secondees did not seem right.  I have lodged an OIA request with The Treasury to confirm one way or the other (which they could answer quickly but probably won’t), but further inquiries resulted in an email suggesting that one of the current Treasury secondees may be the person Burton had in mind.   Here is his LinkedIn page.     The person concerned is a relatively recent Treasury recruit, having joined in 2016, with degrees in Architecture and Public Policy.  Of his time before his secondment last year to the Minister’s office he writes

Company Name:  The Treasury – New Zealand
Dates Employed:  Apr 2016 – Present
Employment Duration: 3 yrs 3 mos
Location: Wellington
I worked on fiscal and policy issues spanning state services to transport, and worked with Treasury leaders on its organisational strategy.

He appears to have worked on a range of policy issues, but also “worked with Treasury leaders on its organisational strategy”.  It has been suggested to me, from people who should know, that this role would have been based in Human Resources.

I would have to say that, if this is the person who was meant, the paragraph in the original article is at least slightly misleading (personally, I feel misled as a reader).   Again, if it is this person, they do not appear to be what most would think of as an “HR professional”.   One might debate what sort of people Treasury should hire as analysts – as Eric Crampton has done vocally – and even how experienced secondees to the Minister’s office should be (bearing in mind that the role is usually more about managing relationships and paper flow, founded on a knowledge of the organisation and its people and the potential significance of the issues, than on providing substantive personal analysis or policy advice to ministers), but this specific claim in Burton’s article does feel like something of an overreach.  Initially I had found it the most compelling single thing in the article –  it was something new to me and quite specific, coming from someone who  –  in my limited dealings with him over the years –  seemed pretty careful about detail.  I should have been more sceptical.


7 thoughts on “Vapid slogans and other top-level public sector vices

  1. Yes Michael, I too was a witness to the descent into absurdity of the New Zealand public service. Group exercises under the watchful gaze of expensive consultants where we were commanded to close our eyes and hold hands while leaning precipitously forward and humming in order to learn trust in one another and the organization. Compulsory solemn attendance at colourful magical rites by local tangata whenua to drive out evil spirits from newly renovated office suites. A political correctness so omnipresent but fragile we bit our tongues and passed the days like Cistercian monks lest we utter any word that might bring our eternal damnation. Franz Kafka and George Orwell had foreseen our predicament so clearly…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And yet there are still pockets where it isn’t so. I hear of them – even in head office Wgtn – and it is only just over four years since I left the RB which, at the time, had various faults but wasn’t infectd with this sort of culture v much at all.


  3. I still have a lot of time for the Treasury. I had a – largely – positive experience of them with the TWG. I saw them really trying to serve the Group and the government generally and I was extremely impressed by the distributional work they did on wealth and incomes.


  4. Good to hear, and even Tony notes that there are still good people and some good work. But overall there isn’t much sign that even among the rest of the core public service, Tsy is regarded with the mix of respect and fear that it once was.


  5. It is good to hear, Andrea. it must mean the weaknesses of the TWG report, which ignored much standard tax theory and the tax systems of most other OECD countries, was the fault of the Working Group and not the Treasury members of the Secretariat. It is a pity that the Treasury has not seen fit to provide the Government with a critique explaining the consequences of choosing a tax system that differs in many ways from the tax systems of other countries, not least by not being particularly progressive despite having some of the lowest taxes on labour incomes and the highest taxes on business incomes in the OECD.

    Or maybe this is what Tony suggests is the problem – a Treasury that has become challenged in its willingness or perhaps ability to provide high quality and independent analytical advice.

    In any case, kudos for Tony for fabulous writing. Even if unfair, this article deserves to be legendary.

    “Stalin humiliated his politburo by forcing them to sing along to a recording of wolves howling. The Treasury leaders are probably attempting a waiata, but the sound they produce is a drone of submission eerily similar to its Soviet precursor. Welcome to the New Zealand public service in 2019.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am astonished that Peter Hughes thought it was a good idea to promulgate something called Peter’s Principles. Was he not aware that the original Peter’s Principle was based on the observation that managers rise to the level of their own incompetence?

    Liked by 1 person

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