Story: Public service

Since its beginning in 1840 New Zealand’s public service has frequently been restructured. While it has sometimes suffered criticism that it is inefficient, the public service has been involved in shaping the country and providing essential services and politically neutral advice to successive governments.

Full story by Richard Shaw
Main image: Census and Statistics Department staff, 1946

The Short Story

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What is the public service?

The public service is made up of government departments. The term ‘public service’ is sometimes also used for the wider state sector, which includes health boards and other Crown entities. It was sometimes called the civil service.

Government departments have run a range of things, for example, railways, mining, education, police, electricity and hospitals.

Early public servants

After New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840, the country gained its first public servants – people who work for the government. At first the governor controlled the public service and people were often appointed on the basis of who they knew, rather than their skills. Very few women worked in the public service.

Reform

Since 1866 a series of royal commissions have reviewed the public service and reforms followed. After the 1912 Hunt Commission a new organisation, the Public Service Commission, was set up to oversee the public service. Employees were hired through the commission and it standardised their work terms and conditions. It also meant that the public service could be kept from political interference.

In 1962 the McCarthy Commission again reviewed the public service and the Public Service Commission gained more powers and became the State Services Commission.

1980s and 1990s

The Labour government elected in 1984 restructured many public service departments with the aim of making them more efficient. The public service was cut considerably. A number of departments were turned into companies and some were sold. Public servants no longer had the security of a job for life.

2000s

Public service departments support the elected government, but are politically neutral. Government ministers decide on the policies that departments support.

Government departments range greatly in size. For example, in 2010 the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs had only 38 staff, while the Inland Revenue Department employed 5,512.

Some departments focused on providing policy advice to ministers, while others delivered goods and services to the public.

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How to cite this page:

Richard Shaw. 'Public service', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-service