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Hot Topic Reporting season
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Stop government doing as government says

HIDESIGHT Business works because the system works. Government fails because the system of government can't do what is asked or expected of it.

Rodney Hide
Fri, 19 Oct 2012


One of the many great pleasures of being a government minister is the continual flow of policy papers and briefings from the country’s best and brightest.

You learn a lot. Fast. The papers are never tedious nor arid. They’re about the issues immediately before the government and, therefore, the country.

So they’re topical, as well as intelligent and insightful.

There is an army of smart people on tap to explain obscure points.

They have spent their careers thinking about the issues from the inside for years. They’re smart and they’re experienced. They know their stuff.

My experience is that the top people in government are far smarter and far better than those at the top in business. Government work attracts smarter people and it’s harder.

The repetitive failure of government policy and programmes is not the fault of the people. It’s the political-bureaucratic system that can’t deliver, despite the best of intentions and the best of people.

And the business system of profit-and-loss has to deliver. A business failing to provide what people want, at a price they’re prepared to pay, doesn’t last.

It’s the system that guarantees the results, not the intentions or the people.

Lack of insight

Business works because the system works. Government fails because the system of government can’t do what is asked or expected of it.

What surprised me in all those briefings and papers was the total lack of any underpinning insight of what the government’s job was. Officials would feign surprise when asked.

Prime Minister Helen Clark summed up New Zealand’s easy-going nature with government best back in 2003.

She was asked whether it was the government’s job to be spending $5 million of taxpayers’ money to help regain the America’s Cup. She replied, "The government's role was whatever the government defined it to be."

That was the position then. And it remains the position now. The best that can be hoped for is a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis on whether government action is called for.

New Zealand has no ideological, philosophical or principle-based hurdle for government action. It’s simply up to politicians to decide. Which means if it looks good for votes, the government will stick its beak in.

The result is the perpetual growth of government. Programmes and policies get added. None get taken away.  We have total government.

There is nothing that government can’t do. And it now attempts most things.

The beast has grown like Topsy. It now comprises 35 government departments, 45 Crown agents, 18 autonomous crown entities, 17 independent Crown entities, 11 Crown entity companies, 29 universities, polytechnics and wananga, 25 “fourth schedule” organisations and 17 state-owned enterprises.

No loss of function

The National Party on attaining government thought it should hack government back a bit. Its approach wasn’t to decide what government should or should not be doing or whether all those agencies are necessary.

Nope. They simply rolled four departments into one. The Department of Building and Housing, the Ministry of Economic Development, the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Science and Innovation were made into one super ministry. There was no loss of function.

The name of the new thing? The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The name says it all. Government can’t do business. That’s what business is for. Innovation? That’s what entrepreneurs do. It’s true that government does employ people, but only at even greater loss of jobs elsewhere. Government is a net job sink.

When asked what the role of government was, Labour Leader Helen Clark declared it was whatever her government said it should be. The National Party hasn’t said it so succinctly but it delivered the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The expression is different but the two positions are identical.

Rodney Hide
Fri, 19 Oct 2012
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Stop government doing as government says