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?