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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Staffing the State Services

Early Staff Control

The first public servants in New Zealand were Englishmen who arrived with Lt.-Governor Hobson in 1840. They were appointed and controlled under a system which was more or less uniform over the whole colonial empire, although the local application of the rules depended on the capacity and inclinations of individual Governors. From 1842 appointments were in three classes: a junior group earning up to £100 per annum; an intermediate group paid from £101 to 200; and senior officials earning more than £200. The Governor's discretion to appointment was greater in the lower than in the higher classes, and he was informed that provisional appointments to higher posts were more likely to be confirmed if they resulted in the promotion of a meritorious official than if they were filled from outside the Service.

Each year the Governor reported to the Colonial Office on the quality of his subordinates and on the qualifications of applicants for vacant positions. In the main, however, the administration of the system depended on the Governors, and some of them were not very capable. In addition, the quality of applicants varied widely. Some of the early public servants were men of outstanding ability, but salaries were not particularly attractive, and were not always paid promptly. Consequently, some Governors experienced difficulty in finding suitable recruits for the Service.

Ministerial Control

When Ministers responsible to Parliament were appointed in 1856, New Zealand assumed control of its own Public Service. Officials ceased to be members of the British Colonial Service, and the Ministers, as the heads of their Departments, became the real appointing authorities. But, in the absence of specific legislation, the power to appoint public servants and regulate their conditions of employment seems to have derived from the royal prerogative. There was now no single authority controlling employment and working conditions. As a consequence, lack of uniformity and uncertainty about the future soon began to demoralise the Service. The Colonial Under-Secretary, W. Gisborne, pressed for improved and standardised conditions of employment, but could obtain political support only for the payment of pensions on retirement.

In 1866 the problems created by the Maori Wars induced the Government to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into “the clerical strength and efficiency of the several departments of the Public Service”. Apart from drawing attention to the confusion between the central and provincial public services, the Commission emphasised the difficulties created by the absence of general rules governing employment. It recommended the division of the Service into classes with maximum and minimum salary limits and annual increments within each class; promotion from class to class; retirement and other allowances in certain cases; and the promulgation of rules of discipline.

These recommendations were incorporated in the Civil Service Act of 1866, but the machinery created to administer the Act (a board consisting of all the permanent heads of Departments) was inadequate for the task. In any case, the Public Service was not seriously inefficient, and the theoretical advantages of improved employment policies counted for little against the real advantages that politicians thought they could gain from exercising their powers as they thought fit. The Act remained on the Statute Book but its provisions were not enforced.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1886

The abolition of the provincial system of government necessitated the amalgamation of the provincial public services with that of the General Government. This brought about a substantial increase in the number of State employees, and in 1880 a second Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into “the constitution and organisation of the Civil Service … and to consider by what means the cost … may be reduced without impairing or lessening the efficiency thereof”. Apart from securing a reduction in salaries, the Royal Commission left little mark on Government employment and directed its attention solely to questions of economy.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1886 contained the next legislative attempt at reform, and provided for entry into the Service by competitive examination. When, however, the Auditor-General refused to allow payment of salaries to persons appointed in contravention of the Act, it was made almost ineffective by an amending Act of 1887 which authorised Ministers to appoint temporarily, at any salary they thought fit, persons who were not qualified by examination. Some improvements were affected during the 1890s when the Post Office and the Railways Department were classified, but further general attempts to reform the Public Service proved abortive. Nevertheless, there was increasing recognition of the need for regular methods of recruitment and standardised conditions of employment and this led to the appointment of a third Royal Commission of 1912 to inquire into and report the unclassified Departments of the Public Service.

The Cause of Delay in Reform

The tentative attempts that had been made between 1866 and 1912 to bring uniformity into Government employment accomplished little because too many people gained from a continuation of established practices. Politicians could use their patronage to their own advantage and that of their friends: those who could not meet normal entry requirements hoped that they would obtain Government jobs through the assistance of a friendly politician: and permanent public servants comprised a pressure group of little importance. Finally, few people were convinced of the need for change, partly because the Public Service performed adequately the tasks allotted to it. However, early in the twentieth century, public opinion began to alter. Public servants increased in numbers, and they were better organised and more influential than in the past. The growing size of the Service made reform more imperative, while Seddon's death in 1906 removed much of the political opposition to change. The conflict between the Government's reluctance to forgo patronage and the need for uniform conditions of employment was slowly resolving itself. Farmers and businessmen began to think that patronage might be causing high costs and inefficiency in the Public Service, while members of Parliament were becoming irked at being importuned constantly to provide jobs in Government Departments. The 1912 Royal Commission, therefore, began its inquiries in an atmosphere more favourable than that existing when its predecessors made their inquiries.

The Public Service Act of 1912

The Reform Government introduced into the House of Representatives a Public Service Bill which differed in one major respect from the Royal Commission's recommendations. Instead of appointing a Board of Management to control the Service, it provided for a Public Service Commissioner and two Assistant Commissioners independent of Ministers but responsible to Parliament. They were given power to investigate the efficiency, economy, and working of Departments both separately and in relation to one another, and to examine the work of every officer. The Bill provided for entry by competitive examination; probation before final admission to the Service; security of tenure during good behaviour; promotion by merit from within the Service; pensions on retirement; free transfer of officers between Departments; the abolition of admission by other than normal channels; and an increase in salaries. The Service was divided into four divisions: administrative, professional, clerical, and general. In 1914 a fifth division, the educational, was added. The Commissioner was required to grade each employee within one of the divisions according to his fitness and the character and importance of the work assigned to, or performed by, each officer and grade. To keep the classification in accord with current work, the whole Service was to be regraded every five years. Salary scales were laid down for the professional and clerical divisions, but the pay for individual administrative division officers was to be determined by parliamentary appropriation, and the wages of general division employees were to be fixed by the Commissioner. Annual increments within grades were automatic, except in the case of certain junior officers who could not earn more than a specified sum until they had given proof of their efficiency. Employees were given the right to appeal to an independent board against many of the decisions of the Commissioner (e.g., against certain disciplinary penalties, the promotion of another officer instead of the appellant, and failure to regrade the appellant during the five-yearly regrading).

Exemptions from the Public Service Act of 1912

Despite its emphasis on the creation of a career service, the 1912 Act authorised the employment of temporary staff when this was necessary in the public interest and assistance was unobtainable from within the Service. The following employees were exempt from its provisions: Judges, Magistrates, the Conciliation Commissioner, the Controller and Auditor-General, and the staffs of the Railways Department, Police Force, defence forces, Departments under the control of the Speaker of either House of Parliament, and any person paid only by fees or commission. Subsequently the exempted list was extended to include the Secretary to the Treasury, the Solicitor-General, the Director of Broadcasting, the Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department, the Secretary of External Affairs, the Commissioner of Works, the Managing Director and Deputy Managing Director of the State Advances Corporation, and the staff of the Post Office.

In 1931 the Cook Islands and Samoan Public Services were placed under the Commissioner's control, but in 1949 the Samoan Service became a separate unit with its own Public Service Commissioner, and the Cook Islands Public Service (other than Niue) will become a separate and independent Service when the Cook Islands Constitution Act of 1964 comes into force.

Changes Since 1912

In 1919, 1920, and 1926 the methods of fixing salaries were amended, but no major legislative change was made until 1927 when an amending Act specified that, in making appointments, the Commissioner must give preference to the most efficient and suitable applicant. Seniority was henceforth to be the deciding factor only when two or more applicants for a position were equally efficient and suitable. This Act also authorised the Commissioner to fill a vacancy in any grade from outside the Service when there was no suitable officer available. In 1946 this provision was amended to cover cases where an outside appointment was “desirable in the public interest” and the appointee was “in a great degree more suitable and efficient” than any available serving officer.

Temporary Employees

After a period of stagnation during the depression of the nineteen thirties, the Public Service entered into an era of rapid expansion. Between 1935 and 1939 the scope and tempo of Government activity increased so greatly that the normal system of recruiting cadets could fill only a small percentage of the newly created positions. Under the 1912 Act the only solution possible was the appointment of temporary employees, and these were recruited in large numbers. After the outbreak of war, in 1939, replacements were needed for officers who joined the armed services, and staff were required for the wartime activities of the Government. By April 1946 the number of temporary employees had increased to 16,000 – 3,000 in excess of the number of permanent officers — and it was obvious that many of them would be required indefinitely, even though from time to time entry by competitive examination had been abandoned in favour of the admission of applicants who possessed recognised educational qualifications. The Public Service Amendment Act of 1946 provided the machinery through which the majority were absorbed into the permanent staff.

Women in the Public Service

Prior to 1914, there were some 1,800 women in the Public Service. By 1918 this number had risen to approximately 4,200. The Public Service Commissioner reported that “women are now satisfactorily performing work which Departments would have hesitated to entrust to them before the war”. Nevertheless, from 1917 onwards he decided that no women clerical cadets would be appointed to the Service. Shorthand writers and typists were engaged as temporary employees, and women clerks were hired on the same basis and pay as shorthand and draft typists. The 1939–45 war reopened other avenues of employment and, by 1942, 3,200 women had been recruited to the temporary staff for wartime duty. Post-war staff shortages necessitated the continued employment of women, and in 1948 they became eligible for permanent appointment to the clerical division for the first time in 30 years. Unless appointed to positions of responsibility, however, women were accorded lower maximum salaries than men. This anomaly was removed by the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 which provided that women in the Service would, as from 1 April 1961, proceed by three annual steps to the same salary maximum as men undertaking comparable work.

Wage Fixing

A new method of fixing wage rates was introduced into the Government services in 1944 when a Government Railways Industrial Tribunal was created to fix the rates of remuneration of all Railway employees other than those occupying the most senior positions. Later, similar tribunals were set up for Public Service Commission and Post Office employees (although the Post Office Tribunal has advisory powers only). The salaries of the most senior officers continued to be determined by parliamentary appropriation; those of the next most senior group by Order in Council; and those of other officers by the appropriate tribunals (and the Director-General in the case of Post Office employees). The Public Service Commission also had power to fix salaries for its lower and middle grade employees, but its decisions could be contested before the Government Service Tribunal.

The 1961–62 Royal Commission

The 470-page report of the Commission presented on 28 June 1962 contained 130 recommendations on the machinery of government, methods of improving efficiency, and personnel policies. It proposed that the Public Service Commission be replaced by a State Service Commissioner with two or more deputies, some of whom might come from outside the Service. The Commissioner would be directly responsible to the Prime Minister for the economy and efficiency of all State Services, but free from political control when handling the personnel cases dealt with by the former Public Service Commission.

The Royal Commission's recommendations included suggestions that the divisional classification of the Public Service be abandoned and that officers be grouped according to occupations, each with his own salary scale, etc.; that the five-yearly regrading be replaced by a continuous review with redefined rights of appeal against grading; that a flexible retirement policy with upper and lower limits of 60 and 65 years of age be introduced, with consequential changes in superannuation rights; that wages be fixed on the principle of fair relativity with “outside” rates in accordance with information collected by a Pay Research Unit and “ruling rates” surveys undertaken at six-monthly intervals; that a committee be appointed to advise the Government on the salaries and conditions of service of senior officers; that seniority be eliminated as a factor in promotion and that the “in great degree clause” be modified; that heads of Departments be appointed by the Prime Minister; and that a training centre be established.

The State Services Act of 1962

Some of the Royal Commission's recommendations were included in the State Services Act which came into force on 1 January 1963. The Public Service Commission was replaced by a State Services Commission of up to four members with powers similar to those recommended by the Royal Commission. The Act provided that a committee of two members of the State Services Commission and two heads of Departments should appoint the most senior officers in the Service and that there would be no appeal from its decisions. Other provisions included the creation of a higher salaries advisory committee; the introduction of occupational classification; continuous regrading and annual “ruling rates” surveys; and amended promotion, disciplinary, and appeal criteria.

Since January 1963 the Commission has expanded its management and training services and delegated extensive powers (including the right to promote to junior executive positions) to heads of Departments.


On 1 October 1962 the Ombudsman, Sir G. Powles, took office. Under the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act, he has power to investigate the administrative decisions of all Government Departments and 22 other State organisations.

State Services Commission

The control of staffing in the Public Service remained in the hands of a single commissioner from 1913 until 1936 when two joint commissioners were appointed to administer the Public Service Act. This arrangement continued until 1938 when once again a single commissioner controlled the staffing of the Service. The Public Service Amendment Act 1946 provided for a Commission of three members, one of whom was to be appointed on the nomination of the Public Service Association. But the experiment with employee representation was not a success; and in view of the fact that the employees' rights were safeguarded through the presence of their nominee on the Board of Appeal and on the Government Service Tribunal, the provision for a nominated member of the Commission was withdrawn. From 1954 to 1962 legislative authority existed for the Commission to consist of up to four members appointed for a term of five years by the Governor-General in Council.

A State Services Commission was set up on 1 January 1963 as a Department of State responsible to the Minister in Charge of State Services with two major functions:

  1. To advise the Minister on the efficiency and economy of the State Services and to supply management and staff training services to Departments as an aid to efficiency. For this function the Commission is responsible to the Minister.

  2. To operate a central personnel agency for the Public Service, with considerable powers delegated to permanent heads. While in certain respects, such as service conditions and salaries, the Commission is responsible to the Minister, the proviso to section 10 of the Act states “… in matters relating to decisions on individual employees (whether matters relating to the appointment, promotion, demotion, transfer, disciplining, or the cessation of the employment, of any employee of the Public Service, or other matters) the Commission shall not be responsible to the Minister but shall act independently”. This retains the major objective of the Public Service Act of 1912 – to ensure the protection of a career service from political patronage.

The early Public Service Commissioners worked primarily to introduce regularity and order into the conditions of Government employment. Their duties were mainly of an inspectorial and regulatory character. They were determined to secure compliance with the provisions of the Public Service Act and in this they were successful. New Zealand's centralised personnel system is now well established, and what is currently required is the positive fostering of efficiency rather than of the enforcement of legislative restraints. The State Services Commission is in essence a new Department of State which has absorbed the functions of the Public Service Commission. It is not merely the Public Service Commission under another name. The task of creating and developing a career Public Service has at last been achieved. The function of the new Commission is to guide and assist the complex services which make up the machinery of government over the second half of this century.

Staffing Outside the Control of the State Services Commission

Agencies outside the jurisdiction of the State Services Commission use similar methods of staff control. The Post Office has a more formal organisation for staff consultation than any other Department. Its joint advisory system, modelled on the British Whitley Councils, was introduced in 1940 to make recommendations to the Director-General of the Post Office on the best means of using the ideas and experience of the staff, office machinery and organisation, and the general considerations governing conditions of service. It is assisted by district and branch committees.

To ensure that staff policies throughout all the State Services are reasonably consistent, a State Services Coordinating Committee was established in 1954 to replace the former Uniformity Committee, and to advise the Government on personnel problems common to the different employing authorities. The Committee consists of the chairman of the State Services Commission, the Secretary to Treasury, the Director-General of the Post Office, the General Manager of the Railways, and — when issues affecting teachers are involved — the Director of Education.

The Size of the State Services

As at 31 March 1964, the 37 Departments under the control of the State Services Commission contained a total of 66,270 employees, of whom 42,784 were permanent officers, 2,125 temporary employees, 20,561 casual workmen, and 800 junior apprentices. In addition, the Legislative Department employed a staff of 151, the Railways Department a staff of 24,168, and the Post Office a staff of 26,548. There were also 12,932 members of the Armed Services, and 2,611 policemen. The Government-owned corporations and companies employed about 10,000 men and women. There were, therefore, approximately 142,000 Central Government employees.

by Raymond Joseph Polaschek, M.COM., B.A., D.P.A., Commissioner of Transport, Wellington.

  • Government Administration in New Zealand, Polaschek, R. J. (1958)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • Bureaucracy in New Zealand, (ed.) Milne, R. S. (1957)
  • The Expert and Administration in New Zealand (ed.) Angus, N. C. (1959). The State Services in New Zealand: Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (1962)
  • Public Administration (Lond.) (Spring 1965), “The Royal Commission on State Services in New Zealand and the State Services Act 1962”, Robertson, J. F.