Saturday, December 29, 2012

Are Brits the people to run our public sector?

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 28.)
TWO RECENT events – education secretary Lesley Longstone’s abrupt departure and the appointment of Kevin Lavery as chief executive of Wellington City Council – have touched off an overdue debate about the wisdom of appointing Brits to top public sector jobs.

Ms Longstone, who was recruited from England, joined a New Zealand public service already top-heavy with appointees from the UK.
Other British department heads include Gabriel Makhlouf at the Treasury and David Smol at the new super-ministry, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (although to be fair, Mr Smol has been here for some time).

Both men seem well regarded. Yet when Brits are appointed to lead three of our most crucial departments of state, not to mention several lesser government agencies – including, ironically, Te Papa, which supposedly embodies what it means to be a New Zealander – it’s time to start asking why there were apparently no suitable local candidates.
Did they not come forward, or were they judged to be inferior to those from the British Isles? If it’s the latter, perhaps we have yet to overcome the cultural cringe which holds that overseas people must be more capable than we are.

In Ms Longstone’s case, things didn’t work out. Perhaps British appointees are better suited to advising on esoteric policy matters than trying to run  departments such as education, which are close to the ground and have a profound impact on ordinary New Zealanders in their everyday lives.
Now Mr Lavery, from Cornwall, has been appointed Wellington’s top bureaucrat. He can expect his performance to be scrutinised very closely, especially as he was chosen at the expense of a New Zealand incumbent whom most agree has done a good job.

The issue is not whether the British appointees have the right credentials on paper. Even her critics conceded that Ms Longstone came with an impressive CV. But our culture, attitudes and ethos are different. Decades have passed since we took our cue from what we then respectfully called the Mother Country.
British recruits inevitably bring with them their own cultural baggage, which may not be compatible with our way of doing things. As a Massey University academic (another Pom, as it happens) remarked of Ms Longstone, she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

She is hardly the first such appointee to come unstuck here. If the State Services Commission goes back through its files, it will find no shortage of high-level overseas appointees who terminated their contracts prematurely, apparently after finding things weren’t quite as they expected.
Invariably the hapless taxpayer ends up picking up the tab. Perhaps it’s time to consider a different approach.

* * *
STILL, you can’t entirely blame the British for wanting to escape. They must sometimes feel like strangers in their own country.

The latest census showed that white Britons are now a minority in London. More than 7 million, or one in eight, of the people in England and Wales were born abroad – one in eight.
There’s a lot to be said for cultural diversity, but it’s surely impossible to sustain immigration on such a scale without fundamentally altering a society. Were the British given any say in this? Most would probably say they were not.

This is not a racist argument. The same would apply if Tonga was suddenly swamped with immigrants from China.  It’s not a matter of race, but the right of people to preserve their society as they know it.
Perhaps the cruellest irony is that some immigrant groups in Britain are so hostile to their host country that they commit acts of terrorism against it. France, the Netherlands and other European countries have experienced similar smouldering resentment from migrant communities.

There are lessons here for New Zealand, which is undergoing profound demographic change of its own. Most of us welcome the more vibrant and colourful society that a liberalised immigration policy has created – but it has to be carefully monitored and managed.
* * *

THREE expressions I hope not to see or hear in 2013:
“Added bonus”. By definition, a bonus is something additional. That means an added bonus must be a bonus on top of a bonus. It’s a nonsense.

“Signed off on”. Some of us recall a distant time when things were approved. Now they are “signed off”, a term that makes no sense whatsoever, or even more bizarrely, “signed off on” (as in, “the cabinet has signed off on more Treaty settlements”).  Hanging is too good for perpetrators of this atrocity.
“Fur children”. I heard a marketing executive from a chain of pet stores say on the radio that this is now the preferred term for your cat or dog. The radio interviewer was too polite to say it, so I’ll do it for him: anyone neurotic enough to call their pets fur children should be barred by law from owning any.



Shane Pleasance said...

Consider the function of these services. The REAL function of public services is the reduction of risk to the prospective ministers and incumbent government. This reduction of risk may also include improvement of service, but not necessarily so.

Brits are at least 10 years ahead when it comes to 'bureacratising' services. They are steeped in the culture and language synonymous with ill defined goals and risk reduction.

They fit perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Karl, what experience do you have of London? As a Londoner, here in NZ briefly, I don't recognise the city you describe.

Karl du Fresne said...

I've visited London several times, most recently in 2002. However my comments weren't based on personal observation or experience, but on what I've read.

Lewis Holden said...

How do you square your criticism of Brits in our public service when you oppose a New Zealander as our head of State, on the basis that you think the British monarch is best for the job - and a New Zealander in the role would cause instability?

Karl du Fresne said...

The argument isn't relevant when it comes to the monarchy, because to all intents and purposes New Zealand functions as a republic in everything but name. Please remind me of the last time a New Zealand government made a decision or adopted a policy imposed on it by our apolitical head of state. By contrast, a New Zealand head of state would almost inevitably be politically tainted.