18 April 2007

Putting 'public' back into public policy

Two of the challenging issues that came with the managerialist reforms since 1987 may be summarised as follows: Do we need, or do we derive real value, from certain public services? And to what extent can such services be performed better by private-sector operators? Asking these questions led to some substantial changes in terms of privatization and contracting out of services. It also led to rethinking the appropriate boundaries between private and public sectors and about importing many private-sector managerial concepts into the public sector.
What I’m wondering, though, is how do we now conceptualize ‘publicness’ in relation to public policy?
Now, the State Services Commission has the central leadership role in defining public-service ethics and overseeing the machinery and the effective leadership of the state sector organizations. So, one can get a good idea from them of how ‘public service’ is framed in the present environment. But the question I’m asking here is really more of a political ideological question, and so I was curious to know what our political parties, in their policy manifestoes, have to say about the fundamental values of public services. So, I went to their websites and had a look, and found that it was not always easy to find a clear ‘vision’ for the future of ideals of ‘publicness’ in our society.
Labour have a specific State Sector Policy, and their 2005 manifesto stated that they have ‘always stood for strong public services available to all New Zealanders who need them’. They claim to have rebuilt services after the cuts of the 1990s, and use figures of numbers of nurse, teachers, etc to justify this. Their policy seems to be a ‘more is better’ approach.
National is a bit harder to pin down. They take a ‘pragmatic’ approach to the possibility of future privatizations of state-owned enterprises, but they have no overarching statement about the value of public services or public ownership. One gets a bit more insight, though, from their Schools Policy which talks negatively about ‘increasing central control’ and ‘increasing bureaucracy’, the remedy for which is to decentralize control to schools (bulk funding?) and give parents more choice (less zoning?).
NZ First also lacks a clear defining statement on the value public services. They talk about their opposition to further asset sales, however. Their Health Policy is also revealing. They want ‘a properly funded and resourced public health service’, but without any more radical restructuring. They also talk negatively about the need to reduce ‘the burgeoning health bureaucracy at all levels’. So, more doctors are welcome, but not more public health officials and managers. But, while they are committed to a public health system, they also want to encourage more people to take up private health insurance. So, the picture one gets is quite contradictory, from the perspective of one who is trying to understand how we value public service per se.
United Future is prepared to privatize some state assets, but they specifically want only ‘partial sale of SOE’s to mum and dad investors’. And their Health Policy is similar to NZ First’s. While they are committed to ‘the public health model’, they are not keen on public administrators and managers, and they are clearly not happy with the supposed inefficiency of the public health system. Hence, they want to ‘promote public-private partnerships in health care, contracting out health services such as surgery to private providers, or others services such as primary care to non-profit agencies, where they can provide care more efficiently or cover shortages in the public sector’.
ACT’s website doesn’t tell us a lot at all, by comparison. They want to make government ‘more transparent and accountable’. As if there weren’t enough budget and reporting documents out there already, they insist on more detail being given to the public about what their taxes are being spent on and why. They want public servants to be bound by ‘pledges’ that commit them to specified levels of service. ‘Health insurance companies will tell you what you’re entitled to, as will security companies. So too should public hospitals and the police.’ They thus mirror the standard neo-liberal line that public services are less efficient and responsive than private enterprise.
The Greens are peculiarly silent on policy about the values of public service, though one would expect that they are generally committed to generously resourced public services.
The Maori Party frame all their policy around the well-being of whanau, and so it seems that their kaupapa cuts right across the traditional Westminster value-system of public administration. Hence, their website contained little that I could apply to this question.

Anyway, I would be interested in responses to this question: After 20 years of reforms that have challenged and renegotiated our assumptions about the value, the values, and the scope of public services, how are we now to conceptualize the ‘public’ in public policy? What is the value of the ‘publicness’ of these services and assets, beyond simply seeing it in terms of the apparatus of government and the conduct of public servants?


At 3:07 PM, Anonymous rohan quinby said...

An interesting question, Grant. I do think that there is a small crisis of 'publicness' in New Zealand that, as you point out, probably has its roots in the reform period.

For me, there are several indicators of this crisis:

The first is the relatively underdeveloped civil society/voluntary sector in New Zealand. Obviously there are many people who are involved in these sectors, but what is most telling is how far behind government is in even recognising that it exists and what its contributions are.

The second is the political climate that faces any governemnt that seeks to create meaningful policies that represent an expression of 'care' for those least well off in our society. I am thinking here of the poverty of the policy responses to the growth of what has been called the 'underclass'. For me, what is at risk here is the replacement of collective expressions of care with collective expressions of punishment.

Thirdly, I feel that New Zealand faces a crisis of public space, particularly in its cities. As an example of this, I would point to the growth of Auckland. The 'city' has followed the 'metropolitan' model of large regions with multiple centres that are connected by large areas of 'suburban' type developments. Policy responses to this have been meagre, partially because the new metropolitan agglomerations are larger than the traditional political spaces of local councils.

At another level, the effect of the reforms in New Zealand has been to undermine traditional welfare/social democratic forms of intervention. It might be possible to say that Labour faces a crisis of policy: It is so far down the neo-liberal track that it deeply suspicious of any kind of traditional social intervention.

I had thought that the politics of the environmental crisis might provoke a new wave of governmental activism, as political parties saw a new field of policy being opened up that would have the possibility of securing wide support. But the announcements of Labour have been mild and even out of step with similar developments in other jurisdictions such as California, British Columbia, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

I am currently wondering about the model that Maori society offers the rest of New Zealand. My supposition here is that nature abhors a vacuum, and that as Pakeha models of publicness and polity wane, Maori models based on whanau and 'deep' social development might grow. Certainly, the kinds of leadership that is developing in the Maori community is, in my view, much better placed to deal with questions of equity, justice and even, environmental management.


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