A speech from the new Secretary to the Treasury

Early last month the new Secretary to the Treasury, Caralee McLiesh, gave her first on-the-record speech in the new role.    The Treasury was a bit slow to release the text, but it is now available here.     It wasn’t a long speech, but it was to a fairly geeky audience –  the Government Economics Network’s annual conference – most of whom wouldn’t yet have seen much of the new Secretary.  With not much else to go on yet, it seems reasonable to look at what she said for any indications of whether/how The Treasury is changing for the better under new leadership.

I’ve been uneasy about the new Secretary for several reasons:

  • first, because she isn’t a New Zealander and has no background or experience in New Zealand issues or people, no domestic networks, and (most probably) little in-depth understanding of the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand, including its longrunning economic underperformance, and
  • second, because she has no work experience in a national economic agency/ministry, dealing with national economic issues (financial crises, monetary policy, exchange rates, immigration, trade, or even very much exposure to fiscal or tax policies), and yet is now the principal economic adviser to our government (itself light on economic expertise or experience).

On the other hand, she has some fairly good academic qualifications and may well be quite capable as the sort of generic public service manager favoured by the current State Services Commissioner.   Whether she can bring to the table more than that –  and New Zealand economic policy, and The Treasury (weakened over the previous 10-15 years) needs more than that –  remains to be seen.

The topic for the GEN Conference was “the role of regional and urban development in lifting living standards”. It is fair to say that my response to the title was along the lines of “there is no such role”, but it was still going to be interesting to see how the Secretary chose to respond to the topic, and perhaps to nest any specific insights on regional/urban issues in an understanding of the much bigger national productivity failings.

Of course, there are distinct limits to what serving senior public servants can and can’t say.  One could argue they mostly shouldn’t be doing public speeches –  their job is primarily to advise ministers, not to spin government PR (or to explicitly challenge it).  But successive Secretarys have chosen to give speeches.

Here is McLiesh running spin for the government

The theme of today’s conference is how well-performing regions and cities can contribute to our wellbeing and raise living standards for all. Those of you familiar with the Government’s Economic Plan will know that the Government has identified ‘strong and revitalised regions’ as one of the key economic shifts it is working towards. And work on government’s urban growth agenda and resource management reforms is well underway.  So this is a significant and substantial topic for New Zealand.

She, if no one else, I guess has to take the government seriously, at least in public, when it says it has a (30 year) Economic Plan.

But in the rest of speech there really wasn’t much substance.  There was the best part of two pages recounting the Living Standards Framework – in text that is fine, but which offers nothing fresh.  At least it ended with a reminder that economic performance matters

The Treasury always has an important role to play in advising government on how to lift economic productivity and performance, and this remains a core part of our LSF thinking. A roomful of economists doesn’t need to be told, but I will say it anyway, that high living standards depend on strong economic performance, and that markets that operate well – and I emphasise, “well” – can, and do, powerfully lift living standards. They enable people to participate in labour markets, earn higher incomes, and apply those incomes towards whatever wellbeing means for them. The story of development is basically a story about investment in the institutions and mechanisms that enable people to flourish in deep and complex markets – that is, to grow.

But really that should be “motherhood and apple pie” stuff to an audience of economists.  And sadly, there hasn’t been much sign of rigorous or systematic advice on lifting productivity and economic performance in recent years.

She moves on to highlight that there are regional differences across New Zealand.  There is quite a nice graphic drawing on OECD data, but she conveniently omits to highlight that (according to the graphic) not one New Zealand region has incomes in the top third of OECD country regions.  Productivity is a huge failing in New Zealand, and that failing just isn’t region-specific.  If anything, the gap between highest and lowest income regions within New Zealand is unusually small by OECD standards.

And thus when the speech says

Regions may contribute more to national economic development if we can tap unrealised economic potential.  A policy approach that emphasises strengthening regional comparative advantage means we may be able to lift national economic performance rather than just shifting economic activity around the country.

it has the feel of someone who is stuck with the Provincial Growth Fund, rather than someone who has thought hard about New Zealand (and what does that counteractual –  “just shifting economic activity around the country” – mean: who has been doing that?)

The next paragraph isn’t any better

There can be a role for government in helping communities to identify strengths and opportunities or strengthening local governance. There can be a role in working across agencies, local authorities, local people, and the private sector to coordinate and facilitate private investment. Or in investing in infrastructure where this directly unlocks economic opportunities. And can we do more to coordinate between social interventions and economic opportunities to ensure these approaches are complementary?

I guess bureaucrats would like to think so, but is there any evidence of governments being able to specifically catalyse regional economic development in a useful and sustainable long-term way, other than by getting the overall national policy settings right, and understanding the national failings?

There are some strange observations

More than a third of New Zealanders live in Auckland, a city with house prices vastly in excess of the marginal cost of supply.

But house prices aren’t “vastly in excess of the marginal cost of supply”, rather national and local regulatory policies have driven the marginal cost of supply –  especially the land component –  well above where it would otherwise be, so that there is no huge gain on offer to people developing new houses.

It was encouraging to see the Secretary allude to Auckland’s longer-term economic underperformance

Between 2000 and 2018 our national population grew by 26 percent, but all of the above-average population growth has been from the Bay of Plenty northwards, with Auckland the fastest growing at 37 percent. Contrast that with population growth of 7 percent in Southland, 5 percent in Gisborne and 4 percent on the West Coast.

This population growth is despite the fact that Auckland’s GDP has grown at only 82 percent of the national average in the 2000 to 2018 period.  In contrast, GDP growth was well above the national average in every region of the South Island, while Bay of Plenty and Northland had above-average growth too.

But there isn’t much sign that she or her department have thought hard about a compelling narrative that explains what has gone on.  Instead we get this rather confused paragraph

Other cities and regions may have plenty of available land.  However, they will need to improve their quality of business and quality of life attributes too if they are to significantly ease pressure in Auckland. And worldwide we see that agglomeration into major cities continues despite congestion and high property prices. Clearly, both employers and employees often see better long-term prospects in these major cities, despite efforts to develop other regions.

In both New Zealand and Australia, we certainly see more people in major cities, but little evidence of the vaunted productivity gains from continued concentration of people in these places.  Natural-resource-based economies tend to be like that, but there is no hint of that as an issue in the Secretary’s story.

And from there the speech heads downhill again

Central government has created more capability through urban growth functions in HUD, and appointing senior regional officials to lead engagement and coordinate government across regions.

Of course lifting wellbeing across the regions is not just up to central government, which is why we see more partnering with local government and regional economic development agencies over recent years to develop action plans.

Lots of busy bureaucrats, lots of meetings for ministers and officials to open and attend, but not much sign of any understanding of quite why the overall economy has performed so poorly over so long (when almost all the tools of economic policy are controlled at the central government level).

Of the final page, I could commend her sense of humour, including this old Tom Scott cartoon (if memory serves from back in the late 80s or early 90s)


But then it is straight back to the self-congratulatory stuff

In closing, I want to acknowledge that being an economist working in public policy is incredibly rewarding, but it can also be challenging. We are a community of professionals that sometimes has to be loud to be heard. When people want the comfort of policy that is simple, certain, and swift, we can find ourselves the sometimes uncomfortable voice of technical rigour, nuance, and realism.

I guess that it might have been music to the ears of some in the audience.  But we don’t –  or shouldn’t –  hire senior public servants to tell people (including ministers) what they want to hear.   Sadly, there has been little consistent sign of The Treasury offering that “uncomfortable voice of technical rigour, nuance, and realism” in recent years, especially on these big-picture economic performance failings.  They seem to have been content to just go along, to maintain access (perhaps) by not addressing the hard issues, and playing distraction with the fluffy stuff while the economic prospects – the living standards prospects –  of New Zealanders, regional or urban, drifted further behind.

It is still early days for McLiesh.   I have heard a few positive things about the new Secretary, including hints of renewed emphasis on rigour. I hope this particular speech isn’t a foretaste of the standard we can expect, but that the Treasury really does begin asking the hard questions, doing robust analysis, not simply going along with conventional political verities (eg regional development).   Perhaps there isn’t a political demand for such advice and analysis –  are there any politicians who really care? – but shouldn’t stop The Treasury being a voice, perhaps at times crying in the wilderness, pointing to how things might be such better here.  As a hint, regional economic development agencies aren’t likely to be any substantive part of the answer.


HYEFU thoughts

I don’t have that much to say about the HYEFU and the Budget Policy Statement released yesterday.  If governments are going to keep on with the insane and destructive (to the economic wellbeing/prosperity of New Zealanders) policy of supercharging population growth then, sooner or later, they are going to need to spend more on increasing the associated public “infrastructure” (roads, schools, hospitals etc).  One can, of course, question the quality of some of that expenditure –  baseline or projected –  but more people pretty reliably means a need for more capital.

That said, if the population is growing rapidly you’d usually expect to see all sorts of investment growing quite strongly.    As I illustrated in a post last week both government and business investment have been really rather subdued in recent years.  The Treasury doesn’t give us forecasts that separate out government and business investment, but here is a chart of their forecasts for total non-housing investment (public and private) as a share of GDP.   The first observation is an actual, the rest are forecasts.

inv hyefu 19

Note the scale.  These are not huge moves, but they are falls.  Treasury expects that non-housing investment will be a smaller share of GDP in the coming years than it has been in the recent past.    Something doesn’t seem right about the economic policy settings, at least if the governments cares about lifting average material living standards of New Zealanders.  Treasury forecasts on the basis of policy as it is, and (fiscal) policy changes the government has told them it will be making.

The picture in the forecasts also doesn’t look very good if we concentrate on trade with the rest of the world.  Here is exports as a percentage of GDP.

exports hyefu 19.png

When it first took office, the government occasionally used to talk about a more export-oriented economy and all that.   No sign that the Treasury thinks that policy settings are consistent with delivering that.  I didn’t include imports on the chart, but the fall in imports as a share of GDP over the forecast period is slightly larger than the forecast fall in exports.     Taking on the world and winning, consuming more of the best the world has to offer, it isn’t.

And it isn’t as if The Treasury is forecasting doom and gloom: they expect overall GDP growth to pick up and be running at around 2.75 per cent per annum.

You’d hope that, faced with projections like these, the Minister of Finance would be demanding from the Secretary to the Treasury –  and that the Secretary would be proactive in offering –  robust advice on what might, after all these years, begin to reverse New Zealand’s woefully poor long-term economic performance.    It doesn’t seem very likely, but the Secretary is new.  Perhaps she is genuinely shocked at how poorly New Zealand does.  Perhaps she is demanding answers, analysis, and advice from her staff.

On page 2 of the HYEFU I noticed this claim

The Treasury is in a unique position to focus on improving the way our economy can raise New Zealand living standards. Along with delivering first-rate economic and financial advice,

Treasury certainly is in a unique position.  They have a lot of staff, have had their budget increased, and have (or should have, if they are doing their job) ready access to Ministers and input across all major areas of policy.   And yet, the actual performance has been poor, and there is little visible sign of that “first-rate economic and financial advice”.  It might be bad if governments were consistently rejecting such advice, but that is their prerogative.   But there isn’t much sign that The Treasury has been offering hard-headed searching advice on the failures of overall economic performance, whether or not successive governments had been inclined to give it heed.

All that said, one can’t argue too much with the fiscal performance.    Here is a chart of the best of the debt indicators Treasury publishes forecasts for.

net core crown debt

Modern New Zealand governments manage debt and the aggregate public finances in a pretty responsible way (I’m not one of those who thinks low interest rates mean governments should take on more debt: rates are low for a reason), and government debt levels near zero seem pretty prudent given the way other government policies remove some of the need for private savings.   And while Treasury thinks we have a small positive output gap, my own inclination –  and the balance of the other estimates they quote –  is that things are a bit weaker than that.  Commodity prices are pretty high to be sure, which always flatters the public finances a bit, but overall I’m pretty comfortable if the operating balance is somewhere just either side of zero.

Successive governments have done aggregate fiscal management pretty well.  It is just a shame they’ve haven’t shown the same degree of interest, passion, commitment etc to fixing the longrunning productivity failures.  Overall fiscal management matters, but in terms of the long-term material living standards of New Zealanders, it is a bit akin to keeping the garden pretty and the fences well tended even as the house itself slowly –  ever so slowly but surely –  rots.


Long-term fiscal choices

Fifteen years ago now Parliament passed an amendment to the Public Finance Act requiring that every four years or so

the Treasury must prepare a statement on the long-term fiscal position

There is nothing in the Act as to what these long-term statement should cover, just a minimum time horizon” “at least 40 consecutive financial years”.

This wasn’t a pathbreaking fiscal reform by New Zealand.  By the time our amendment was enacted a fair range of other OECD countries had somewhat similar requirements (see table on page 4).

Fifteeen years ago I probably thought this new requirement was a good thing.  I’m much more sceptical now  It is unlikely that such reports do much harm, but:

  • they cost a lot to do (at least as Treasury typically does them –  the legal requirements could probably be met with a two page report),
  • come around much more frequently than any underlying issues change, and
  • there is little sign that long-term fiscal management is any better for them existing.

There are fiscally reckless countries and fiscally cautious countries, and there were both types before and after the introduction of long-term fiscal reports.  It isn’t obvious which country has switched sides (or moved much at all) as a result of these sorts of reports.  New Zealand, after all, introduced the requirement when our own fiscal surpluses were around an all-time high already.

What is more, the underlying issues are really pretty obvious to blind Freddy.   Here is what I wrote when the last Long-Term Fiscal Statement was released in late 2016

The Treasury yesterday released its latest Long-Term Fiscal Statement.  These documents, in some form or other, are now required under the Public Finance Act to be published at least every four years.  I was once a fan, but I’ve become progressively more sceptical about their value.  There is a requirement to focus at least 40 years ahead, which sounds very prudent and responsible.    But, in fact, it doesn’t take much analysis to realise that (a) permanently increasing the share of government expenditure without increasing commensurately government revenue will, over time, run government finances into trouble, and (b) that offering a flat universal pension payment to an ever-increasing share of the population is a good example of a policy that increases the share of government expenditure in GDP.  We all know that.  Even politicians know that.  And although Treasury often produces an interesting range of background analysis, there really isn’t much more to it than that.  Changes in productivity growth rate assumptions don’t matter much (long-term fiscally) and nor do changes in immigration assumptions.  What matters is permanent (well, long-term) spending and revenue choices.   

There really isn’t much more to it than that.

That statement was released in November 2016, which means –  time flying as it does –  the next report is due next year.   A Treasury that wanted impact might reasonably be expected to publish before the election, and if they do that they need to be sufficiently early in the year not to be caught up in the immediate highly partisan pre-election period.

As it happens I went to an event at Victoria University the other day at which one of Treasury’s researchers was presenting some modelling results of work done for the next Long-Term Fiscal Statement.  I can’t tell you about those results, but it did get me thinking about some of the past Statements and wondering how they looked with the passage of time.

In my excerpt above I referred only to spending on New Zealand Superannuation which, on current policies, will rise indefinitely as a share of GDP so long as life expectancy keeps increasing.  But the other big issue –  which sage Treasury officials will sometimes suggest is really the bigger one – is health spending.  There are new technologies and drugs, rising public demand, not much productivity growth (at least in the health sector in New Zealand), and an ageing population itself seems likely to create additional cost pressures.

This is the sort of chart The Treasury likes to show, from the background papers to the 2009 Long-Term Fiscal Statement.

health 09

On those numbers, health would be a simply huge fiscal pressure, and the case for higher taxes might be hard to resist.

I’ve always been a bit more sceptical that health is quite the issue it is sometimes made out to be.  That is mostly because there are so many more dimensions on which government health spending can be adjusted than there are around NZS (for the latter, one can play with the age of eligibility, the rate, and the indexation formula, all of which get a lot of attention) and the societally-accepted boundaries are fuzzier (whose GP visits should be free or heavily subsidised, how much should be spent on drugs, how much other rationing should there be).

Anyway, on that 2009 Treasury chart, the projecting forward of historical trends (as Treasury did it) would have had government health spending by now (year to June 2020) well in excess of 7 per cent of GDP (eyeballing the chart suggests about 7.3 per cent).  Here is a chart from a recent post including budget numbers for the current (to June 2020) year.


Government health spending now is sitting just on 6 per cent.  It was about 6 per cent in the year to June 2008 (just prior to the recession) and not much below 6 per cent forty years (note that period –  the LTFS statutory focus) ago.

Now, quite possibly there is a totally unsustainable huge shortfall in government health spending at present.  But if so, none of the political parties is making that case (notwithstanding the rhetoric from Labour in the last campaign) or doing anything very much about, and since the issues around fiscal policy are really political in nature (how easy/hard is it to make decent choices in a timely way) it does suggest that the margins are more fluid, the fiscal outlook more readily malleable, than the quadrennial publications from The Treasury are sometimes taken as suggesting.   The system copes, and adjusts, perhaps less elegantly than officials might like, but that it does so nonetheless.  That is consistent with, now, 30 years of fairly sensible, often quite conservative, fiscal management by governments led by both main parties.  Adjustment rarely, if ever, occurs in response to projections 30 or 40 years ahead, but to pressures that become apparent within much more near-term windows.

As for NZS itself, personally I’m not overly interested in arguing the case for reform on fiscal grounds but on a rather more moral ground.    Even if we could afford it, even if there were no productive costs from the deadweight costs of the associated taxes, there just seems something wrong to me in providing a universal liveable income to every person aged 65 or over (subject only to undemanding residence requirements).    45 per cent of those 65-69 are now in the labour force –  suggesting they are physically able to work –  which is substantially greater than the 30 per cent of those aged 60-64 who were in the labour force 30 years ago when NZS eligibility was at age 60.

I don’t consider myself a welfare hardliner.  I think society should treat quite generously those genuinely unable to work, especially those who find themselves in that position unforeseeably.  Old age isn’t one of those (unforeseeable) conditions, but personally, I have no particular problem with something like the current flat rate of NZS, or even of indexing it to wage movements (which would be likely to happen over time anytime, whether it was the formal mechanism from year to year), from some age where we can generally agree a large proportion of the population might not be able to hold down much of a job.  I don’t have a problem with not being overly demanding in tests for those finding work increasingly physicallydifficult beyond, say, 60.   But what is right or fair about a universal flat rate paid – by the rest of the population – to a group where almost half are working anyway?  It is why I would favour raising the NZS age to, say, 68 now (in pretty short order) and then indexing the age in line with further improvements in life expectancy, and I’d favour that approach even if long-term fiscal forecasts showed large surpluses for decades to come.    At the margin, I’d reinforce that policy change with a provision that you have to have lived in New Zealand for 30 years after age 20 to be eligible for full NZS (a pro-rated payment for people with, say, between 10 and 30 years of actual residence).  Why?  Because in general you should only be expected to be supported by the people of New Zealand, unconditionally, in your old age, if most of your adult life was spent as part of this society.

Reasonable people can, of course, debate these suggestions.  But they are where I think the debate should be –  about what sort of society we should be, what sort of mix between self-reliance and public provision there should be, even about what mix of family support and public support there should be, or what (if any) stigma should attach to be funded by the taxpayer in old age –  not, mostly, about long-term fiscal forecasts.

Services exports – another NZ weak spot

Various people in my Twitter feed were highlighting what appears to have been a quite interesting conference in Auckland over the weekend on external-trade related issues. I haven’t seen the papers, but at least from the various tweets I saw I was struck by an apparent air of unrealism, that doesn’t take much account of just how poorly New Zealand has been doing on the foreign trade front.  It is a bit like when MFAT and Cabinet ministers talk up this, that or the other new preferential trade agreement –  there have been a lot of them over the years – and yet we find ourselves now with foreign trade shares of GDP no higher than they were in (say) the early 1980s.   For younger readers, those were widely perceived at the time as dark days –  lots of import protectionism, terms of trade very low, CER not yet signed, and so on.

Services in one of those areas that trade experts seem to like to talk about, a lot.  Here was an MFAT tweet from the weekend conference.

In a way that isn’t surprising.  In the median OECD country, services exports are almost 13 per cent of GDP, and the median increase in that share over the last couple of decades is about 4 percentage points.

But not in New Zealand.

Among the full group of 35 OECD countries, New Zealand has the 10th lowest share of services exports as a share of GDP.   But every single one of the other nine are countries that are far bigger than New Zealand: Australia, with almost five times our population is the next smallest.  For good and fairly obvious reasons, foreign trade tends to make up a smaller share of GDP in larger countries.

But what about the smaller OECD countries?  Almost two-thirds of OECD countries have populations of 11 million or less, and we are by no means the smallest of those countries.   Here are services exports as a share of GDP for the smaller OECD countries, truncating the vertical axis because Ireland and Luxembourg are so much higher than all the other countries on the chart.

services exports small OECD

New Zealand has the smallest share of services exports in GDP of all these smallish OECD countries –  and by quite a margin.       And it isn’t as if we are closing the gap.   Over the last 20 years, services exports as a share of GDP have barely changed in New Zealand (with some ups and downs) while for the median of the other smallish OECD countries, the increase was 6.7 percentage points of GDP.

NZ services exports

Now, of course, distance materially and fairly obviously affects quite a lot of what counts as services exports –  notably, our two largest classes of services exports, tourism and export education.

Here is a long-term chart showing all our travel and transportation exports (which includes freight and export education).

T&T services X

The picture looked quite promising 20 years ago.  Much less so now.

And, on the other hand, here are all the non-travel and transport services exports.   These, in principle, should have been where much hope was reposed.

non T&T services X

It is, perhaps, a more positive story, but not very much so.   After all, despite all the technological advances, and cheaper and better communications etc, this group of services exports is still (in gross terms) less than 2 per cent of GDP, and no higher as a share of GDP than was the case at the turn of the century.    As a share of total exports these (non travel and transport) services exports have risen a bit more, but even that increase isn’t particularly impressive, as there has been no growth in these services exports as a share of total exports this decade.

Out of interest, here is the export education component of services exports as a share of GDP.

X education

Ups and downs but –  even with all the subsidies to this sector (mainly through the immigration system) –  still now below the levels reached in 2004.    And it isn’t as if our universities are relentlessly climbing the global ladder, suggesting that fresh waves of new exports –  attracted by the quality of the product – are likely from this source.

Now, as experts like to point out, there is a services component in all or most goods exports too.  But (a) it isn’t as if New Zealand has been doing well with goods exports and (b) the overall character of our goods exports hasn’t been changing much either (eg lots of fancy manufactured products with a huge design or IP component).

For all the talk, services exports –  including the higher-tech ones people like to talk about in such seminars –  just haven’t done particularly well in New Zealand.

That doesn’t surprise me.   The combination of a persistently high real exchange rate –  direct consequence of other policy choices –  and the continuing constraints of distance (even for many of what may look like “push a button and it is done” services) seem to me to pretty much explain the story.  New Zealand is just not a great location to base many outward-oriented businesses, even as our governments pursue more and more people to live here.   It shouldn’t be surprising that the relative size of the tradables sector in New Zealand has been shrinking.

On such matters, I saw that in advance of the weekend workshop/conference, the Herald the other day had a full page profile of MFAT’s leading trade official, deputy secretary Vangelis Vitalis.     Rereading that piece, and exchanging notes with someone over the weekend about public sector senior appointments and our new Secretary to the Treasury, I was left wondering why Vangelis Vitalis wasn’t appointed to fill the role.  His is an enormously impressive and energetic guy, he knows New Zealand (and is a New Zealander), is open-minded and engaging, and thinks about economic issues and risks.    Perhaps he didn’t apply.  Or perhaps he just doesn’t fit the Peter Hughes model of safe generic public sector managers.  But it does seem extraordinary that the powers that be would pass over –  rather than, say, shoulder-tap –  such a significant economic and policy talent right here among us, already in officialdom.  You can negotiate all the preferential trade agreements in the world, and it won’t matter much for economic performance –  lacklustre for decades –  unless you get to the heart of the underlying problem.


Obstructionism from SSC

Several months ago now the State Services Commissioner announced the appointment of a new Secretary to the Treasury.   The new appointee finally takes up the position later this month.

When the appointment was announced I wrote a fairly sceptical post, noting that the appointment process had been long and slow, suggesting that there had not been an abundance of high quality applicants, let alone a standout one or two people who might, almost naturally, have succeeded to the position.   That in itself should been enough to raise questions about how well the State Services Commission has been doing its job, given that (a) one of those roles was to nurture and develop talent at the senior levels of the public service, and that (b) really successful organisations tend to promote from within (an element of the success having been in nurturing and retaining talent).

As I wrote then, I am also sceptical about the new appointee herself.   She has no experience in a national economic policy agency (having worked primarily in research at the World Bank, and then in NSW state government roles –  NSW being more than a city council but rather less than a country), has no apparent knowledge of, or background in, New Zealand, and has no obvious long-term vested interest (her own future or that of her family) in the economic success of New Zealand.     At best –  and as I noted at the time, no one in New Zealand willing to comment publicly seems to know her well –  we might have acquired a smart generic public sector manager who would not have been a serious contender for a similarly senior role in her own country, and probably sees herself on a career path back to upper levels of the Australian (or NSW) public service in a few years time.  At best.    And this in a country where (a) The Treasury is the government’s premier economic adviser, and (b) whose long-term economic underperformance has been dire, a situation that shows no sign of reversing.

Against that backdrop it seemed reasonable to ask a few questions about the selection process, evem bearing in mind that –  as I wrote when the position was advertised –  the advertisement seemed designed to recruit a safe generic sector manager, and that seems to have been what the SSC found.

The National Party seem to have thought it was worth asking questions in Parliament. That should have ensured that they got decent answers –  after all, parliamentary questions aren’t subject to all the agency protections the OIA provides.   But it seems to have been a hard road even for them.   They seem to have asked eight written questions of the Minister of State Services (in the 2019 series, questions 27398, 27396, 27394, 27393, 27392, 27391, 27390, 27389).

Most of the questions were asking about the applicants for the position of Secretary to the Treasury (not individually, but information such as the male/female split, citizen/non-citizen, resident/non-resident, total number of applicants, economics qualifications of applicants).  Every single one of those questions seemed reasonable and appropriate questions for MPs to ask about the appointment process around the most important public service job.   But on every single one of those demographic questions the Minister of State Services –  Chris Hipkins  –  simply refused to provide a substantive answer, offering this standard response

“I am advised that the State Services Commission does not release information about applicants to chief executive roles in the interest of privact. Information provided by applicants to the State Services Commission is done on a confidential basis.”

Which might have been fine had National been asking for the names and addresses of all applicants, but this was aggregated data they were requesting.  It looked a lot like obstructionism for the sake of it, by a Minister whose government used to claim it would be “the most open and transparent ever”.

Seeing these responses, I was aware that –  for example –  similar data had been requested, and released, in response to OIA requests around the appointment of Reserve Bank MPC members.    And so I lodged an Official Information Act request with the State Services Commission asking for a similar range of information, but not just about the applicants as a group (where there could be all sorts of non-serious people) but about the subset of applicants SSC had chosen to interview.  In my request I pointed out that another public agency had already released similar information around other appointments (ie the Reserve Bank roles), and that I was not seeking any individual personal information, or information that in total might allow the identification of any individual.  It seemed to me inconceivable that the OIA would allow SSC to get away with a blanket refusal.

At around the same time, the National Party lodged a new parliamentary question asking who had advised that releasing the information sought in the earlier questions would be a breach of privacy.  That seems to have helped spark a rethink, whether in the Minister’s office or at SSC.  This was the answer Paul Goldsmith received.

29115 (2019). Hon Paul Goldsmith to the State Services (Minister – Chris Hipkins) (07 Aug 2019): Further to WPQ 27394 (2019), who advised the Minister that releasing the number of applicants for the position of Secretary to the Treasury who were based in New Zealand or overseas at the time of the application breaches the privacy of the applicants?                                                                                                     Hon Chris Hipkins (State Services (Minister – Chris Hipkins)) replied: On 25 July 2019, I was advised by the State Services Commission (SSC) that it does not release information about applications to chief executive roles in the interest of privacy. I did not receive advice that stated releasing the number of applicants information breaches the privacy of the applicants.SSC has subsequently reviewed their advice and have advised they will be releasing the information in response to written parliamentary questions 27389, 27390, 27391 and 27394 (2019) having balanced privacy and public interests.

SSC has advised that 24 applications were received for the position of Secretary to the Treasury and that information provided in the applications indicates that eight applicants for the role of Secretary to the Treasury held a Masters or higher qualification in an Economics based discipline.

They also advised that information provided in the applications indicates that eight applicants were resident in NZ and 10 applicants were not resident in NZ at the time of their application for the role of Secretary to the Treasury. Information for six applicants is not held by SSC.

This is also my response to written parliamentary questions 29116, 29117, 29118, 29119, 29120, 29121, 29123, 29124, 29125 and 29127 (2019).

And last week I got a response to my OIA request to SSC.

I had requested this information

I am writing to request the following information about the recent process to fill the position of Secretary to the Treasury.

  1. How many applications were received?
  2. What proportion of applicants were (as best you can tell) female?
  3. What proportion of applicants were New Zealand citizens?
  4. What proportion of applicants had at least an honours/masters degree in economics?
  5. What proportion of applicants had a PhD in economics?
  6. What proportion of applicants could reasonably be described as long-term New Zealand public servants?
  7. What proportion of applicants were living/working abroad at the time of application?
  8. How many of the applicants were interviewed by SSC?
  9. What proportion of those interviewed were female?
  10. What proportion were living/working in New Zealand at the time of application/interview.

As I took pains to stress, it was inconceivable that even answering all those questions completely could identify any individual (since I wasn’t asking for any cross-tabs –  eg “how many male PhD applicants were living in New Zealand”).

In respect of the applications, SSC gave me much the same answers they provided to the Minister to answer Paul Goldsmith’s questions (which was a little annoying since some of the questions were different –  thus I never found out how many of the 24 applicants had “at least an honours/Masters degree in economics”).

The information on applicants was only mildly interesting because all sorts of people, some wildly unsuitable, apply for all sorts of jobs –  whether because people are deluded about their abilities, or on the remote chance of it helping get a New Zealand visa.  You get the feel there must have been some of that going on with these applications: there were 24 of them, and yet SSC claims not to know where a quarter of the applicants were living/working at the time of the application, which simply isn’t credible in respect of any serious applicant (who will have details of currrent employment as part of their CV and application).  SSC also claims not to have known the citizenship of a quarter of the applicants, even though they were applying for a position requiring a very high level security clearance.  For what it is worth, here is what they did tell me

  • seven applicants had NZ citizenship and 11 did not have NZ citizenship

  • eight applicants were resident in NZ and 10 applicants were not resident in NZ.

NZ residency and NZ citizenship information for six applicants is not held by the State Services Commission (SSC)

I had asked about what proportion of the applicants could reasonably be described as long-term New Zealand public servants. I deliberately framed the question that way to (a) minimise work for SSC, and (b) because I wasn’t interested in whether someone had spent two years as a junior analyst 30 years ago or (indeed) disqualifying them if having spent 30 years in the public service, they had spent the last couple of years getting experience in the private sector or overseas.     SSC claimed not to know the answer to this question –   which looks a lot like obstruction again –  but did tell me that only seven of the 24 applicants (not including the successful applicant) had indicated some experience (who knows when) in the New Zealand public service.

Also looking like obstructionism, the SSC refused to tell me (or, via Hipkins, the National Party) how many applicants had a PhD in economics.  Again, they claimed this was on the grounds of privacy. But that is simply nonsense.  Whether there were one, five or seven such applicants (the successful applicant has a PhD in Finance) cannot possibly identify any individuals.  Perhaps it would be embarrassing to SSC if the answer was none (although in my view it needn’t be –  a research qualification, which is what a PhD largely is, shouldn’t be a prerequisite for such a position)?

In many respects, I was most interested in the group of applicants SSC interviewed –  after all, they were the people SSC must have regarded as the most credible applicants.  SSC told me that they interviewed five candidates, two of whom (including the successful applicant) were female. But they have flatly refused to answer the final question about what proportion of those they interviewed were living/working in New Zealand at the time of application/interview.  Again this was (allegedly) to “protect the privacy of individuals”.  They went on to say

The SSC information release confidentiality guidelines ensure we allow as much high value information as possible to be released, while ensuring that it is not in a form that could reasonably expect to identify an individual, or at a level of aggregation where the information is still informative.  These guidelines apply to any statistical information that contains private or confidential information and therefore prevent us releasing the exact number of applicants interviewed who were working in New Zealand at the time of their application.     

I’m not sure how they can justify release the share of interviewees who were female and not the share who were living/working in New Zealand.  Neither can possibly disclose individuals.   Perhaps the answer is in that chilling line that they do not release information “at a level of aggregation where the information is still informative” –  which would seem to run directly counter to the letter and spirit of the Official Information Act.

Since we know that one of the five –  the successful applicant – was living/working overseas, the answer to my question can only be 0%, 20%, 40%, 60% or 80%  (living/working in New Zealand).  The answer could be quite revealing about SSC’s priorities, and/or its talent management and development, but it simply could not tell us who these individuals are (and, of course, nor should it).  My suspicion now –  given SSC’s obstructionism –  is that we would find that hardly anyone living in New Zealand, or with a strong New Zealand background, was interviewed: I hope that wasn’t the case, but given SSC’s approach you have to wonder what they are hiding.

I have asked the Ombudsman to review this SSC refusal, both on the grounds that there is no legitimate protection of individual privacy ground available in this case, but also because the wider public interest would be served by the release of this information, in this case in helping to hold SSC to account for the way in which it is doing its job –  developing and selecting the top tier of the New Zealand public service.

In the meantime, what we do know is that we have an incoming Secretary to the Treasury who looks underqualified for the role, who has few/no New Zealand knowledge or networks, and whose incentives are simply not that well-aligned with the long-term interests of the people of New Zealand.  It looks like a poor appointment –  although time may prove otherwise –  but perhaps she was the least bad that was on offer.    SSC and the government don’t seem too keen on allowing us to get a better sense of that.

(As a reminder, I was not the only commentator to raise doubts about the appropriateness of yet another offshore appointment –  can’t we manage to run our own country? –  and there was a lot to agree with in this column from Simon Chapple, director of Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.)

A last post on Makhlouf

One final post before the waters close over the issue.

When I wrote my post on Thursday afternoon about the SSC report on Gabs Makhlouf’s conduct in the “Budget leak” affair, Makhlouf himself had still made no comment.  By then, he had made no comment at all for four weeks, since the press release put out –  hand in hand with one from SSC – at 5am on Budget day.  Among other scrutiny he had avoided, he’d deliberately stayed away from a select committee hearing he would normally have attended, thus denying MPs any last chance to question his conduct.

But later on Thursday afternoon, Makhlouf issued a short statement  (4:41pm being about as close to close of business as he could possibly get).   In the circumstances, it is worth quoting in full.

“Mr Ombler’s investigation was conducted thoroughly and fairly. I have read the report carefully and encourage others to do so. I apologise that Budget information was not kept secure. The inquiry that I asked the SSC Commissioner to undertake will help us understand exactly how that happened and how to stop it happening again.

The report confirms I acted at all times in good faith and with political neutrality. It also confirms that I acted reasonably, other than in my descriptions of the incident. I am pleased that my honesty and integrity are not in question.

It has been my privilege to have had the opportunity to serve New Zealanders and I’m very proud of what my Treasury team has achieved over the last 8 years.”

He’d probably have been better off to have said nothing, and left us wondering. We already knew from the SSC report that Makhlouf disputed all the report’s adverse findings, and showed no sign of any contrition, or even of a sense that with the benefit of hindsight he should have done things differently.  But, perhaps, (we might have wondered) in his heart of hearts he really knew things hadn’t been handled well.

What does Makhlouf’s statement actually say?

The first paragraph is, in context, mostly an exercise in distraction. He apologised that the Budget information itself hasn’t been kept secure but (a) he had more or less taken institutional responsibility for that a month ago, and (b) that wasn’t the subject of the SSC inquity that had been released earlier on Thursday.  That report was about Makhlouf’s own conduct after the premature access to Budget information came to light.  It was a pretty damning report, especially when read in full (which I join him in encouraging people to do), and read knowing it was written by and for people who had worked closely with Makhlouf, including at the height of the “Budget leak” affair  (the timeline in the report has Peter Hughes in two meetings with Makhlouf, Ombler in one, and there was sufficient coordination and discussion that Treasury and SSC were issuing simultaneous press statements on 30 May).   It was only two weeks since Hughes had gushed about Makhlouf: if they had thought they could acquit him of everything, most likely that would happily have done so.

The final paragraph is irrelevant to the topic of interest on the day.

Which leaves simply that second paragraph.  A very senior public servant needs to draw attention to the fact that an inquiry judged that he was acting in good faith.  “Good faith” is an incredibly weak standard, and I don’t recall anyone –  through the whole affair –  suggesting that his actions were taken other than in good faith.   16 year olds probably mostly act in “good faith”, but it doesn’t mean they make good calls.

And what of political neutrality?  Sure, there is no suggestion that Makhlouf was some Labour hack, but who ever thought otherwise?  After all, he had been appointed and reappointed, with the consent of ministers, under a National government.  Had the tables been turned, and Labour MPs had done the same thing under a National government presumably Makhlouf would have handled things in exactly the same way.

That is, badly.

And then we get the central sentence of the short statement

It also confirms that I acted reasonably, other than in my descriptions of the incident.

As I pointed out in my earlier post, the “reasonableness” test used by Ombler was a very weak one –  nothing about whether the actions were what could reasonably be expected from a senior longserving Secretary to the Treasury –  and yet there were still three explicit findings against him, about “unreasonable” choices.   Read the report itself and Ombler could easily have identified several more (for example, Makhlouf’s refusal to accede to the urging of the head of the GCSB –  actual technical experts –  to correct the inappropriate use of the word “hack”, or his meeting with the Minister in which he was reading out the draft of the infamous press release (containing “hack”) but clearly didn’t understand enough to be able to answer the question of why GCSB wasn’t investigating).

But stick with the three adverse findings by Ombler.  Gabs attempts to diminish them, calling them just being about how he “described the incident”.

It is barely even accurate and is highly misleading. Here is the extract from the report

Mr Makhlouf did not act reasonably in relation to:

  • his use of the phrase “deliberate and systematically hacked” in his media statement issued at 8:02pm on Tuesday 28 May
  • his use of the bolt analogy in media interviews on the morning of Wednesday, 29 May
  • in his media statement on the morning of Thursday, 30 May, continuing to focus on the conduct of those searching the Treasury website rather than the Treasury failure to keep Budget material confidential.

The first involved a press release –  on what was already a very sensitive political issue –  the second involved a sustained round of interviews (he had chosen to do, at the request of the Minister) with four of New Zealand’s main media outlets, and the third  –  about a release on the morning of Budget day, amid seriously escalated political tensions –  goes directly not just to description but to mindset and perspective  (as Ombler noted, even during the inquiry interviews Makhlouf continued to hold to an interpretation of Budget confidentiality conventions that (a) no other serious observer holds, and (b) which Ombler politely takes apart).

Those alone were really serious failings, and Makhlouf accepts not one of those findings.

He might take comfort (as he does)

I am pleased that my honesty and integrity are not in question.

But that isn’t really the point is it? What is in question is his competence, his judgement, his ability to lead under fire, his willingness to listen to others, his ability to recognise mistakes and learn from them –  let alone his willingness to account to the people of New Zealand for his handling of this episode, played out in the full glare of the public spotlight.

The whole episode, right to the very end, reflects pretty poorly on Makhlouf and on SSC, including the fact that Makhlouf didn’t front up to the media at all, and that SSC didn’t insist (Makhlouf was still their employee on Thursday). No one could force him to hold views that he didn’t, but if he is going to refuse to accept any responsibility, or acknowledge any misjudgements, he should at least have had the decency to have fronted up to the media and faced, and answered, serious questioning.  As it is, he got off without even a formal reprimand – enabling him to get away with spin like this press statement –  and simply refused to explain his view.  Peter Hughes argued that Makhlouf’s reputation had taken a big hit anyway, and that that was really what mattered for those in these “big jobs”.    But it isn’t.   The old biblical maxim is relevant here

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required,”

People in those “big jobs” have money, power, influence, status, connections –  in Makhlouf’s case even citizenship –  bestowed on them.   We should expect much higher standards of responsibility and accountability for them.     Sure, there are then bigger costs (to those individuals) when they fail and are held to account, but that is how the system is supposed to work –  the quid pro quo for all those things society bestows on them.   It reminded me of Victoria academic Lisa Marriott’s work

Associate Professor Lisa Marriott, from Victoria Business School, has spent six years looking at the unequal treatment of people who commit welfare fraud compared with those who commit tax fraud, with her research showing that beneficiaries are treated more harshly at every turn.

I don’t suppose it is conscious choice, but it seems to happen anyway.  In Makhlouf’s case, the system worked to minimise the price he paid, the accountability, for some really severe misjudgements and a refusal to accept he’d done anything wrong. (Of course, the circumstances of the calendar helped too – had his term still had six months to wrong, it is hard to see how he could have survived in office, avoiding facing media or parliamentary questions, all while maintaining he had done nothing wrong.)

Pottering around doing chores this morning, I listened again to Makhlouf’s Radio NZ interview on 29 May, and the discussion with RNZ’s political editor immediately after the interview. It was fascinating to do so having to hand the SSC report and the detailed timeline it contains.  We now know a lot about what Makhlouf really knew (or should have), what advice he’d taken (and rejected) and so on…..and it was a reminder of just how much of a political firestorm this was (a point the SSC report largely ignores, even though Makhlouf was –  in good faith no doubt –  inflaming it): the RNZ political editor was talking of this as an episode that could cost with Bridges or Robertson their jobs (at this point, Makhlouf was the unquestioned good guy).  It would be tedious to run through many details, but suffice to say that although Makhouf had a fair idea of the nature of what had gone on (the report makes that clear) he made no effort in the interview to hose down talk of a serious cyber-attack and he explicitly rejected the idea that there had been any incompetence or sloppiness at the Treasury end (when the report makes clear that Treasury had a good idea on the previous afternoon that the clone site indexing issue was a probable explanation).  He fed the frenzy, played distraction……and was still playing distraction in his statement this Thursday, as he headed out the door, refusing to take any questions,

In my very first post on this business I wrote

Whatever your view of how Gabs came to be appointed and reappointed, or of his overall stewardship of the office of Secretary to the Treasury, it is a sad business in many ways.

And, of course, it has only gotten worse –  and sadder –  since then.  What a sad, rather tawdry, way to end an eight year term as the most senior public servant in New Zealand.

And yet it was (and remains) all of his own making, as –  instead of hosing things down, making amends, apologising –  he climbed onto the pyre as if determined to commit reputational-suttee.

Perhaps acknowledging nothing, conceding nothing, avoiding a formal reprimand, helps him in some short-term sense –  harder for the Irish to backtrack perhaps? – but he leaves a severely-dimished figure, and you have to suppose his future colleagues around the ECB Governing Council will always look rather askance at him, wondering about his judgement, pressure under fire and so on.

It is sad to see, especially when it is someone one has had a little to do with. As an outside observer and commentator I’ve been a bit ambivalent about Makhlouf.  Mostly critical of his stewardship to be sure, but there was a reasonable speech just a couple of weeks ago, and it is only a couple of months ago since, out of blue, one Saturday afternoon I had an umprompted text from him.  He must have been reading this blog.  He chose to remark on two “particularly good posts on [  ] and [  ] this week”.


The SSC on Makhlouf

The SSC report (undertaken by Peter Hughes’s deputy) on Gabs Makhlouf’s conduct in the “Budget leak” affair late last month was finally released this morning, along with a statement from the State Services Commissioner himself, and a press conference (for which we appear to have to rely on media reports).  It was a very mixed bag but (remarkably) manages to show Gabs Makhlouf’s conduct and judgement in an even worse –  materially worse –  light than most would have expected, even having followed the media stories at the time and since.  Had it not been his last day in office anyway, his position would surely have been utterly untenable.

As it is, Peter Hughes appears to find himself betwixt and between.  He is clearly keen to distance himself from Makhlouf.  (As one small example, I was bemused that he had his comms person contact me last night to correct a mistake in my post yesterday, expressed thus: “in the current political climate, Peter feels it important to make clear that he did not reappoint Makhlouf” (previous Commissioner Iain Rennie had): not exactly standing behind your employee.)   And many of the words in his official statement, and (particularly) those reported from the press conference sound good, and pretty hardhitting.  From the official statement

“I have concluded that Mr Makhlouf failed to take personal responsibility for the Treasury security failure and his subsequent handling of the situation fell well short of my expectations.  Mr Makhlouf is accountable for that and I’m calling it out.”


At a press conference on the report, Hughes said his expectation of what chief executives should do when things go wrong was “very clear” and the chief executives knew it.

“They need to own it, fix it and learn from it. And I expect people to stand up and be accountable, and I am disappointed that Mr Makhlouf did not do that on this occasion,” Hughes said.

“The right thing to do here was to take personal responsibility for the failure, irrespective of the actions of others and to do so publicly. He did not do that.”

There were no hugs for Makhlouf (see Iain Rennie/Roger Sutton).  And yet that was it.  Hughes is reported as saying that were Makhlouf not leaving anyway he’d have looked at some formal reprimand (easy to say now, all hypothetical), and yet to do so now would be “cynical and meaningless”.  I don’t see anything cynical about it at all, and the meaning would be to show citizens and voters that there is at least some degree of formal accountability for people at the top.    Hughes went on to say that in these ‘big jobs” reputation is everything, and Gabs’s will have taken a big hit.  That is no doubt true, and as report makes clear it was entirely self-inflicted.  But what employers and governments can do is to make formally clear –  endorse the reputational hit – that conduct of this sort is utterly unacceptable, and judgement this poor would not be tolerated in very senior public servants.

And it got worse

“We can’t run the public service on the basis that you’re only as good as your last mistake. We can’t do that – that’s The Apprentice, it’s not Fair Go New Zealand. I have to look at this in the round, I have to look at this in terms of his eight years of service, and that’s what I’ve done…

What message does that send?  That really severe misjudgement by one of the most senior public servants in the end doesn’t matter that much, cos’ he’s a good bloke?  It is fine to talk in terms of learning from mistakes –  and just possibly, if this were a new Secretary to the Treasury one week into the job it might be applicable here –  but this was someone who had held top office for eight years and yet, when the heat really came on, performed very badly.  And, worse, as the report makes clear still today does not accept that he did anything wrong.  No “learnings” in that case.

And, of course, this was the same Peter Hughes who just two weeks ago at the gala farewell for Makhlouf, hosted by the Minister of Finance at the Beehive said

“Thank you from the people of New Zealand. Our country is a better place for your work.”

He said Makhlouf had brought “strong leadership and a great deal of personal integrity” to Treasury.

He had been “authentic and straight up” and had been calm and unflappable.

“I will certainly miss your calm authority,” Hughes said.

As I noted in a post at the time

In no conceivable universe (except perhaps some parallel one inhabited by SSC) could Makhlouf during that Budget episode be said to have displayed “calm and unflappable” leadership.  Had he done so, there’d have been no inquiry.

And the inquiry report demonstrates just how far from calm and unflappable Makhlouf’s conduct appears to have been, and how little “strong leadership” and “personal integrity” has been on display.    That gush, when Hughes must already have known much of what would be in the report –  a lot of it was in the media, some involved meetings he himself had attended –  seems both borderline dishonest, and if not then casting some doubt on the judgement of the State Services Commissioner himself.

It is perhaps worth noting too that the Minister of Finance has been playing the whole thing down even more than the Commissioner.  His statement makes no reference at all to the adverse findings in the Deputy Commissioner’s report (even though in my reading of the report, the Minister emerges not too badly –  recognising that the report dealt only with his, and his staff’s, interaction with officials).

But what of the Deputy State Service Commissioner’s report itself.   There was a great deal of interesting material, which puts Makhlouf in a very poor light, even though the standard Mr Ombler was asked to use was a fairly weak one, interpreted in ways that made it weaker still.   The standards he was asked to use were whether Makhlouf acted in “good faith”, “reasonably”, and “maintaining political neutrality”.   I didn’t have too much difficulty with how he interpreted good faith and the political neutrality (and as I’ve said before I thought most likely Gabs acted in good faith, and was not knowingly partisan), but here “reasonable” is defined as an action/decision that was “one that was open to be reached and is within the limits of reason”.   Either in how his mandate was written or how he interpreted it, there is no sense of a standard being whether actions/decisions were of a standard that might be reasonably expected from the most senior public servant in the land, who had held that high office for eight years.

And yet even on that rather generous standard, Mr Ombler still found that Makhlouf failed to act reasonably in three important respects.

Mr Makhlouf did not act reasonably in relation to:

  • his use of the phrase “deliberate and systematically hacked” in his media statement issued at 8:02pm on Tuesday 28 May
  • his use of the bolt analogy in media interviews on the morning of Wednesday, 29 May
  • in his media statement on the morning of Thursday, 30 May, continuing to focus on the conduct of those searching the Treasury website rather than the Treasury failure to keep Budget material confidential.

Very little of what Makhlouf did during this period, after the first few hours, seems to meet a standard a fair-minded observer should expect from such a senior public servant.

Among the puzzles is just who Makhlouf was taking counsel from, if anyone, during this period.  Paragraph 10 of the report list the people Ombler talked to in the course of his investigation, but although various Treasury officials are listed, only one of Makhlouf’s second tier is mentioned (a new acting Chief Operating Officer on secondment from elsewhere in the public sector).  But none of the rest of his second tier –  the people he’d been working with for years, and who had a better sense of The Treasury, the Budget –  is mentioned. It is most unlikely –  in Budget week –  they were all away.  Did he really not talk at all to Struan Little, the Deputy Secretary responsible for the Budget, who takes over as Acting Secretary tomorrow.   Did people like him not take Gabs aside and suggest he was losing perspective?  If not –  based on all else in the report – that reflects poorly too.  We know that when Makhlouf decided –  late on the Tuesday night –  to do a round of media interviews the next morning, he explicitly rejected his Communications Manager’s offer to help him prepare lines/answers  (he went on to do those interviews with no outside prep, and not that much sleep apparently either).

What also becomes clear is that, although Treasury staff initially thought there had been a leak, by pretty early on (1pm on the Tuesday) they were converging towards recognising that the material may well have been taken from searches of their own website (all that clone site indexing stuff), and by 3pm that day they had turned off the function that was creating the snippets (of the sort that had been released earlier that morning).     They told Makhlouf this by 5pm, before Police, GCSB or anyone else was much involved (although one gap in the report is there is no discussion of contact between Treasury staff and the Minister’s office during the afternoon  – it is just impossible to believe there was none).

What is more, the report records that Makhlouf told the Minister of Finance (7;15pm on the Tuesday) that it was ‘very likely” that the information released had been accessed through deliberate searches on the website (all that clone indexing stuff again was explicitly mentioned).  Sure, they don’t seem to known that with certainty, but a calm chief executive would surely have taken it as the most likely explanation and tailored his actions and comments accordingly (while not closing down other lines of inquiry).

The timeline in the report has a lot of detail on the back and forth among Treasury, GCSB, and Police over this period.   GCSB seem to have made clear that it wasn’t a matter for them, and  –  since Treasury already knew the likely nature of the way the information had got out  –  to the extent there was anything for Police, it was already clear that it probably wasn’t about what had gone on, but on the narrower question of whether that activity had been illegal.

But none of that stopped Makhlouf.    At 8.02pm he had gone out with his, now infamous, “deliberate and systematic hacking” statement, and (by implication) associating GCSB with his statements/actions.  He had sufficiently little understanding himself that he told the Minister he didn’t know why GCSB weren’t investigating, and yet went on to tell the Minister he thought he (Makhouf) had to make a statement.  He read out the draft statement to the Minister –  hadn’t even given him a draft in advance to reflect on –  and at the same time said he wasn’t going to do media interviews. The report notes that the Minister’s staff who were in the meeting gained the impression that what had gone on was a far more serious computer system intrusion than what (Treasury staff already knew was most likely) the case.  It looks a lot like a chief executive, stung by the breaches on his watch, probably rather emotional, not turning to wise counsellors, and not ensuring that he had himself fully understood what staff were telling him.   Any statement should have been toning down the issue, accepting (probable) responsibility, not amping it up and (a key point in the SSC report) attempting to shift responsibility.

It got worse.  Treasury hadn’t shown GCSB their draft statement (with the word “hack”) and when Andrew Hampton saw it he texted Makhlouf and said Treasury needed to correct the statement (Hampton’s comms adviser then lodged a complaint with Treasury at not being shown the draft statement –  as would be conventional when one government department refers to another in a statement).  Makhlouf and Hampton talked and Makhlouf simply rejected the advice (even though GCSB is a key adviser on cybersecurity threats etc).

Earlier in the evening, Makhlouf hadn’t intended to do media interviews.  That was about his last good call in the whole affair.  But late in the evening, the Minister’s press secretary rang to ask him to do so, and Makhlouf agreed.  He seems to have taken no advice, including on possible responses, and instead got up at 4:30 on the Wednesday morning to prepare himself, where he came up with the infamous and highly misleading bolt analogy.

According to the report, by about 1:40pm on the Wednesday Treasury not only had a high degree of confidence that the “leaks” had simply involved systematic searches, but they had been told Police weren’t taking the matter any further.   Makhlouf told the Minister this at about 5:30 on the Wednesday.  He said he would make a media statement (and a parallel one from SSC) but thought it could wait until Friday, after the Budget was out of the way.  It was just another in a series of extraordinary lapses of judgement.    Wisely, the Minister’s office got back to Makhlouf shortly thereafter to indicate the statement should go out before the Budget.  (Presumably it was about this time the National Party had indicated they would hold a briefing in the morning to reveal how they got the information.   The report is endlessly cute on this point –  despite the fact that Treasury had a near-certain view of how the information had been found, we are expected to believe that they had no strong sense, even quite late in the piece, that National staffers had done the searching).

A reasonable person might have supposed that, having amped the issue up in his press release on Tuesday night, raised the stakes further in the media interviews on Wednesday, and (as background noise) having had senior ministers alleging all sort of impropriety, that a statement would be rushed out just as soon as it could possibly be got together (perhaps even a press conference with Makhlouf and his head of IT).  But no.  And Ombler concludes that this was all quite reasonable because “it takes time to draft an appropriate media statment and to appropriately consult other agencies”.    Except that the decision to do a press statement had been done by 6pm, the draft was sent off to various agencies –  including SSC (who thus saw the draft of the statement they now rightly criticise Makhlouf for) –  at about 8pm, the Minister’s office had it by 8.53pm, and the whole thing was finalised and sent out to various officials under embargo just after 9:30,    There was no reason why it could not have gone public then, not released into the dead of dawn, at 5am the following day.

Except, of course, that the statement was not well done.   As the report concludes, Makhlouf ended up focusing more on the people who had found the information than on the failures of The Treasury itself, and played up an extraordinary interpretation of Budget confidentiality conventions that surely no one else would have regarded as reasonable –  and which Ombler decisively picks apart.  Such conventions bind ministers and public servants, not people who find information through weaknesses in your website.  According to the report, Makhlouf even now rejects this interpretation.

The report suggests that Treasury staff themselves seem to have got caught up in a similar defensive mindset. In a way that is understandable: the “leak” would have been deeply embarrassing, but it was Makhlouf’s job to lead the organisation above the embarrassment and to do the right thing.  He simply didn’t do that, and no one else –  in his department or elsewhere in the public sector (the very top tier of public servants) – was willing or able to stop him.  Where, for example, was his employer –  Peter Hughes – after the first statement, after the interviews, or when he got the draft of Thursday’s statement (and the timeline records he was in two meetings with Makhlouf on the Wednesday afternoon, but the report tells us nothing about what he said or did with those opportunities).

Bottom line seems to be that Makhlouf does not regard himself as having done anything wrong.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, the report contains no sense of Makhlouf looking back with regret or wishing some things had been done differently (and he had a draft of the report, so had the opportunity to inject such perspectives if Ombler had missed them).  Consistent with that there was no contrition or apology at the time, and not a word from Makhlouf since.  He deliberately avoided parliamentary scrutiny at FEC the other day, and there has been not a word from him today.   And at the close of business today he is off, no longer accountable to anyone in New Zealand at all.  It is a shockingly poor standard of conduct on display.  He could not have survived in office –  with these findings and no contrition –  had it not been his final day.  It must be a tough day for Treasury staff, many of whom will probably be going out of their way to stay clear of Makhlouf (even those who otherwise have good impressions of him).

We –  citizens –  deserve much better.  We deserve more answers from SSC themselves.  And, one would have to say, the people of Ireland –  and of Europe –  deserve much better: if this is how their new Governor (and ECB Governing Board member) reacts under pressure when something goes wrong on his watch, it is a real worry as economic and financial pressures and tensions build.    And it is a reminder of how utterly crucial it is for anyone near the top to have at least one person they trust who is willing to tell them to their face when the top person has stuffed up, lost perspective, got it wrong.  If Gabs had such a person, they were missing in action in Budget week.

Secretary to the Treasury

Gabs Makhlouf finishes as Secretary to the Treasury tomorrow, and there is still no sign of the SSC report on his conduct in the “Budget leak” affair. (Although the State Services Commission doesn’t really seem to live in the 21st century –  when it publishes press releases it seems not to put them on its website simultaneously with sending them out to the favoured list of journalists –  so it is always possible it is in fact out.)   Even if the report finally emerges in the next day or so, they’ve basically run out the clock. And that would, surely, be convenient for everyone –  government, SSC, Makhlouf, and the public sector CEs club –  except those actually seriously concerned about accountability in public life.

But yesterday we did finally get an announcement of an appointment of a new Secretary to the Treasury.   The job was advertised more than six months ago  (the fact that there would be a vacancy on Friday was known three years ago), suggesting that SSC had some difficulty finding a good person for the job.  In a well-functioning organisation/system, there would have been at least two or three really impressive, and pretty obvious, internal contenders (not necessarily internal to The Treasury, but to the New Zealand public service) and it wouldn’t have taken that long for a decision to have been made in favour of one of them.  A decision would have been announced several months ago, and the chosen person would have taken office on Friday.    Serious questions should be asked –  but no doubt won’t be answered –  about the process, and (more fundamentally) about the state of the upper levels of the public service (supposedly developed and nurtured by first Iain Rennie and now Peter Hughes) when twice in succession, SSC has chosen to turn to outsiders, with no knowledge or experience of New Zealand, to fill the premier position in the New Zealand public service.  Successful organisations mostly appoint from within.

Of course, The Treasury isn’t a high-performing organisation these days –  use any standard you like, but including stakeholder surveys, reviews of the technical quality of policy, the perspectives of capable staff who have now left, or even just the telling anecdotes (someone told me the other day about their dealings with Treasury social policy analysts, who reportedly struggled with the difference between average and marginal).  There are some good stories too, and some very able people, but few now view it with the mix of fear and awe that once characterised official Wellington. But the degradation of the public sector institutions’ isn’t unique to The Treasury –  after all, if it were just a Treasury problem, it shouldn’t have been hard to find a new Secretary to the Treasury from elsewhere in the high-performing policy parts of the public sector.

But what to make of the new appointee, Dr McLiesh?   The only honest answer is that it is very hard to know, and only time will tell.   That isn’t really good enough, in someone stepping the role –  in Peter Hughes’s own words –  in which they will be (not the organisation, but the individual)

“is the principal economic advisor to the Minister of Finance and the Government.”

It appears that very few people in New Zealand –  at least those in a position to comment – know her, and so we are left having to take Peter Hughes on trust. But then he was the person who reappointed Gabs Makhlouf, and that choice doesn’t inspire much confidence (even less now than at the time it happened).[UPDATE:SSC has got in touch and pointed out that the reappointment decision was made by Iain Rennie.]

I may be in a small minority here –  although I suspect not –  in that, however able someone is, I just don’t think it is appropriate to be recruiting foreigners –  especially not ones with no background in or experience of New Zealand – for such critical and sensitive roles.  Few other countries –  at least ones that had got beyond either colonial status or complete dysfunction –  would, and we shouldn’t.    Countries have interests that are, at times, in conflict with those of other countries, and that is true even for someone coming from the UK (Makhlouf) or Australia (McLiesh) –  and, in fact, those potential conflicts are much greater as regards Australia than the UK (just think of the banking sector for example).   One needn’t criticise the individuals concerned to think that we really should be capable of running our own country, and if the Secretary to the Treasury is not an elected policymaker, the person who holds that office should be a highly influential counsellor to elected governments, and hugely influential on what should be the premier department of state.  Someone rushed in from another country –  even a very friendly one –  just does not have primary loyalties to New Zealand, or a sense that their own future, and that of their children and grandchildren, depends on a job done excellently.   And they have no historical, social or political context for their advice.    We don’t have foreigners with no background in New Zealand as MPs or ministers, no matter how able.  And we went through a big debate 15+ years ago in which we decided that we didn’t want foreign judges either –  even though, at least in principle, judges simply apply Parliament’s law, and should be much less influential than the Secretary to the Treasury.

One might also add some comment about selection bias. Really top-notch foreigners –  really well suited to be premier economic adviser to the government of a sovereign state –  might normally expect to be recognised and rewarded best at home.  The New Zealand public sector isn’t spectacularly well-paid (unlike, say, Singapore or Hong Kong) and New Zealand is a poorer and smaller country than either the UK or Australia.   And it isn’t as if, these days, New Zealand is at the leading edge of reform, economic thinking, or public adminstration.  As far as we are aware, neither Makhlouf nor McLiesh had compelling family connections to New Zealand that made them want to give up the glittering prizes of home, make the sacrifice and just happened to be available to serve New Zealand.     Neither, at the time of appointment to the New Zealand Treasury secretary rule, seem likely to have been serious contenders for the comparable appointment in their home country.  Perhaps they were the best we could get……but that then is an indictment on the SSC handling of the New Zealand public service.

At the time Makhlouf was appointed, it was made known that the government had rushed through an emergency grant of New Zealand citizenship to enable Makhlouf to have the job (as if, somehow, a label transformed loyalties).   The question should be asked now as to whether Dr McLiesh is also being given a rushed grant of citizenship.  And if not, what is going to happen when really sensitive issues arise?  When I worked at The Treasury for a couple of years, there were a couple of second and third-tier people who were Australian citizens, and care was taken around NZEO (New Zealand eyes-only) documents to ensure that those people did not see them.  Perhaps that works down the line, but how appropriate is it as an option for the Secretary to the Treasury?    If, for example, an Australian banking group, and/or their New Zealand subsidiary, is in crisis?

(The point here is not that any such appointments would be likely to consciously seek to serve another country’s interests, but that (a) the rules are designed to protect against extreme eventualities, and (b) appearances matter greatly.  I have worked as a mid-senior level official in two foreign countries’ national bureaucracies, and so know something of which I speak –  fortunately perhaps there were few/no Zambia/NZ issues.)

And what of the individual?  Eric Crampton has been the most vocal (public) critic of The Treasury under Makhlouf.  He is quite positive, if guardedly so, on the new appointee, who has a PhD in finance, and during a term on the staff of the World Bank was the co-author of several journal articles with highly-regarded academic authors.   I put less weight on that, partly because I’m not convinced of the cult of the PhD (in non-academic contexts, where I’ve seen people with top degrees from even better universities and with pretty strong publication records who simply weren’t suited to senior public sector roles).

I guess I put more weight on (a) what she has, and hasn’t, been doing and saying in the last decade or so (since moving into the New South Wales public sector), and (b) on who appointed her, and so the likely criteria being used to make the choice.

The new Secretary to the Treasury joined the New South Wales Treasury in 2008.  New South Wales, you will have noted, is not a country but a state.  Quite a few people live there, but in the end it is still more than a city council but less than a country.  So much power and functionality has been centralised in Australia, that technocrats regularly ask what the point of state bureaucracies really is.    Where this matters, in thinking about the New Zealand Treasury role, is not around managing a budget, or even dealing with individual (perhaps very complex) infrastructure projects, but around most everything else.   Tax policy for example.  Or monetary policy (The Treasury has just been handed a seat on the new MPC), financial system regulation, or even much of the big picture around health, education or welfare policy.  McLiesh has precisely no experience –  according to the SSC’s statement, which will have been putting the best foot forward –  in advising national governments on critical areas of national policy.    And there is a pretty good chance that, until the last couple of months, she has never given New Zealand economic policy, and its major failures (productivity) and challenges, a moment’s thought –  unless perhaps on a skiing trip she happened to pick up a local newspaper.    Frankly, this new appointee appears about as substantively well-equipped to be the key economic adviser to a sovereign national government, in a country with its own currency etc, as Makhlouf does to sit on the ECB Governing Council.

Perhaps one doesn’t really expect fairly senior state public servants to be making speeches, writing articles etc.  Mostly, it isn’t the day job.  I went looking and couldn’t find any evidence of anything.  But people who nurture a longstanding commitment to excellence in economics and policy advice often find avenues – and avenues are found for them –  to tap that expertise, in papers, commentaries, discussant comments or whatever.  But I couldn’t find anything with her name on done since she left the World Bank.  Perhaps I missed something –  I’d be keen to know if so –  but she looks like someone who has successfully transformed herself into a fairly well-regarded public sector operator.    There is a place (an important one) for those skills.

In eleven years in the New South Wales public sector, McLiesh has had five jobs.    From the look of the documents, they weren’t a succession of stellar promotions, but of frequent rotations, and then a move last year to run what seem to be the NSW equivalent of polytechs (in the wake of a sudden departure of the previous incumbent).    One of the questions that should interest anyone in thinking about the New Zealand Treasury is the management record: especially so for anyone uneasy about the current state of The Treasury.  Perhaps the new appointee really is a stellar change-manager and someone with a demonstrated track record of lifting performance in troubled organisations.   But when you are on your fifth job in eleven years, there have to at least be questions about whether you’d stayed around long enough for anyone to really tell the good that might have been done.

Which brings me to the final relevant set of considerations: who made the appointment, and what is the evidence on their predispositions?    I wrote about the appointment process, and the advertising for the job, in a post back in January (skip the first few paras).  From that post

The procedure for the appointment of public service chief executives is set out in the State Sector Act.  Section 35 provides that when there is a vacancy the State Services Commissioner must

invite the Minister to inform the Commissioner of any matters that the Minister wishes the Commissioner to take into account in making an appointment to the position.

That is the Minister’s opportunity to scope the job, and identify his or her priorities.  And although there is now a perception that appointments are made by the State Services Commissioner, in fact the law is clear that the Cabinet can not only reject a nomination, but can appoint their own preferred nominee.   In other words, while Peter Hughes (the State Services Commissioner) has considerable influence, appointments ultimately reflect to a substantial degree the choices and priorities of ministers.

And, writing about the capabilities SSC said it would be assessing people on

All probably fine and reasonable in their own way –  if what you want is some generic public service manager –  but again what is notable is the absences.   Neither here, nor anywhere in any of the documents, is there any sense of wanting someone who might model excellence as a policy adviser, or lift the performance of the organisation in a way that might deliver credible and compelling answers to the appalling productivity underperformance of the New Zealand economy.

And why not?  Presumably because neither Grant Robertson, nor his boss, nor his party, nor the parties they govern in league with, care.  Nothing –  in these documents, in speeches, interviews or anywhere –  suggests otherwise.

Perhaps Grant Robertson really was made uncomfortable by Makhlouf’s extraordinary behaviour in the “Budget leak” affair, but that aside we’ve not heard or seen a word suggesting that he wants something materially better or different in The Treasury.  Only yesterday he was out promising more wellbeing and Living Standards Framework stuff.

And Hughes?  His track record isn’t one of promoting people with real expertise, and leadership capability, in the subject area they are responsible for –  what does Andrew Kibblewhite know about Justice, or Andrew Bridgman about Defence, or Carolyn Tremain about economic development. to take just three high profile examples.   Real expertise might not be disqualifying –  people seem to speak highly of the new MFAT head –  but it scarcely seems to be a prerequisite.  Nothing in the Treasury advert really suggested he’d made an exception in that case.  The focus seems always to be on appointing general public service managers, who won’t rock the boat, won’t upset Peter Hughes, and will get along nicely with ministers.    If that is what you want in the job, quite probably the new Secretary to the Treasury may do quite well, while probably seeking to use the job as a stepping stone to something bigger, better, and better-paid (richer country and all that) back home.     But count me sceptical that the appointment presages a substantial improvement in The Treasury.   (And, as always with public service heads these days, the likelihood now of disrupting the Treasury second tier, so that the incumbent has their own people:  some might argue that change is warranted –  but the sun/moon feeling card senior manager has already gone  – but where are better candidates likely to be found in the diminished New Zealand public sector?).

Near the end of my earlier post I wrote

I guess there is nothing to stop the person who is eventually appointed choosing to make productivity a priority and foster work developing compelling analysis and recommendations.  But it doesn’t seem very likely.  Even if Treasury isn’t as resource-constrained as some government agencies, there won’t be lots of capable staff resources readily able to be diverted to something that just isn’t a government priority.  But more importantly, what sort of person do we suppose is likely to get the job?   And why would such a person, who got through the selection process (acceptable to both SSC and the Minister) be likely to change their spots once in office.  What would be their incentive?  And how likely is it that they’d be the sort of person who would even care much, or understand the issues well enough to know where to start.

That still feels about right now.

I’d love to be wrong about this, and truth is that at present we have only very very partial data.  If the new Secretary to the Treasury really is the agent of transformation, dramatically lifting the performance and standing of the organisation, I’ll be delighted –  and, I hope, ready to highlight my pleasant surprise.  But it isn’t clear, on the information to hand now, why we should expect anything more than a competent generic public service manager, with little expertise in national economic management, no background in New Zealand, and –  perhaps most importantly –  no mandate or imperative for anything much better or different.

Our institutions have been in decline for some time, and there is little reason to suppose that Peter Hughes –  or the ministers he works for –  will be the agents of reversal, or that this latest appointment is a sign that change (for the better) is really in the wind.


Some material on Makhlouf’s performance

Someone –  perhaps a current public servant or someone who depends on access/opportunities – sent me a carefully anonymous email with a collection of material (all public) that the compiler thought relevant to judging the performance of Gabriel Makhlouf as Secretary to the Treasury.   I’m passing it on as I received it (deleting only the –  meaningless to me – email address I received it from).  I’m not sure if the person was just trying to persuade me (I suspect not) or wanted to get the material out more broadly and wanted to use me as a conduit.
I’m not sure I read all the material in quite the same way the sender does: so-called “gender pay gap” data are just meaningless, and I’m not going to criticise someone for not “doing better” against a meaningless benchmark –  even if the person concerned was a champion of the “diversity and inclusion” movement, which is full of vapid rhetoric.   Similarly, I’m not persuaded that the proportion of women in senior management is a meaningful statistic, even if Makhlouf himself did once come out and suggest he’d adopted internal quasi-quotas.   If people on the left want to attack him on those grounds I’ll leave that to them.
I also couldn’t play the Bloomberg TV pre-election clip, so I’m not sure what to make of that (although I never thought of Makhlouf as partisan per se).  I had my own post earlier this year in which Makhlouf participated in some craven –  and highly inappropriate in a serving senior public servant –  adulation of the Prime Minister.
But since I do care, a lot, about the quality of analysis and policy advice, I thought the table in the very last section (below) was pretty telling and –  on the face of it –  almost scandalous.     And the best evidence of poor judgement under pressure was, surely, what we all saw in the “Budget leak” affair a couple of weeks ago, compounded by his retreat behind closed doors and public silence –  no apology, no contrition, no explanation –  since.
Beyond that, make of it what you will.   Here is what I was sent.
Publicly available evidence regarding the actual performance of Makhlouf as Secretary
In what state does Makhlouf leave the capability, culture, performance and reputation of the Treasury – below his actual LEGACY from observable statistics
Some recent examples of operational failure
  1. Technology: Website security failure May 2019
  2. Comms: Heartwork the Wellbeing Game 
  3. Comms: 2019 Budget Cover photo
  4. Technology: Coding error in Treasury child poverty calculations 2018
Can NZ be confident there won’t be further significant operational failures at the Treasury
makhlouf 1.png
TREASURY has the LOWEST % of women in senior leadership in the entire public service
TREASURY has the 4th largest gender pay gap in the entire public service

2. Why was the Treasury’s 2016 Cultural Audit withheld from OIA




2017 Stakeholder survey results:

2. Inability to recruit locally for entry level roles reflecting weak reputation and culture – Treasury’s HR team travel to London to recruit analysts / senior analysts
From Treasury’s  2018 annual report

It would be interesting to OIA what the score would have been if “methodical robustness of at least 80%” was not applied as was the case in previous years
Consistent decline is evidenced by observing this measure over the last 4-5 years – all in Annual Reports

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.