Story: Public service

Page 1. What is the public service?

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Government departments

New Zealand’s public service is made up of the government departments responsible for serving the government of the day. They provide the government with advice and deliver services to the public. These government departments are listed in the second schedule to the Public Service Act 2020. Each department is headed by a chief executive who answers to a government minister for that department’s performance. In turn, the minister must account to Parliament for the departments for which she or he is responsible.

The number of departments has varied over time as different governments have reformed the public service. In December 2020 there were 32 departments. The term ‘public servant’ is usually used to refer to those employed in these core institutions (most have ‘ministry’ or ‘department’ in their name).

The wider state sector

In 2011 the wider state sector also included roughly 2,800 Crown entities (including some 2,600 school boards of trustees), 17 state-owned enterprises, three officers of Parliament and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. More broadly still, the public sector included the 85 city, district and regional councils that made up local government.

Maybe you won’t get paid

In the early days of the New Zealand government it was not unusual for civil servants in separate departments to receive different pay for doing the same or similar work. Sometimes they were not even fully paid. In 1844 the government announced that civil servants earning more than £80 (around $10,000 in 2020 values) a year would only be paid part of their salary, with payment of the remainder depending on the state of the colony’s finances at the end of the year.

The first civil servants

New Zealand’s first civil servants were Willoughby Shortland (colonial secretary) and George Cooper (colonial treasurer and collector of customs), who were brought from New South Wales in January 1840 by Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson to help establish the new colony of New Zealand .

By the end of 1840 there were 15 civil service departments, all based in Auckland, which employed a total of 39 men. The governor of the colony personally controlled the civil service.

Civil service

The term ‘civil servant’ dates from 1785, when it was coined to describe employees of the East India Company who did not work in either the navy or army. The position of ‘civil servant’ was first recognised in New Zealand law in the Pensions Act 1858, which granted retirement pensions to civil servants who were too old or sick to work. ‘Civil service’ and ‘civil servant’ were commonly used until 1912, when they were officially replaced with ‘public service’ and ‘public servant,’ although some people still used the earlier terms.

Provincial versus central government

In 1846 New Zealand was divided into the provinces of New Munster (the South Island and the North Island south of the mouth of the Patea River) and New Ulster (the rest of the North Island), and in 1852 it was divided into six provinces, each with its own provincial government. This led to a struggle between central and local governments for control over the funding of the civil service. For a time, the provinces more or less took charge of delivering public services. Governor George Grey handed responsibility for sheriffs, coroners, police, sheep inspectors, prisons, works, roads and harbours to the provinces (partly because this reduced costs for central government).

Expansion and centralisation

Through the 1870s Julius Vogel (in various roles including premier and colonial treasurer) borrowed from overseas to promote works and immigration programmes that dramatically increased the role of the state. After the provinces were abolished in 1876 the functions of government departments, and the number of public servants, continued to climb. However, the public service shrank during the economic depression of the 1880s. The public service grew rapidly again in the mid-1890s following the formation of a Liberal government in 1891 and a return to a more buoyant economic climate.

Sanatoriums and asylums

In 1892 there were 48 government departments, including the Lunatic Asylums Department and the Rotorua Sanatorium. In 2020 there were 32 departments. The Lunatic Asylums Department and the Rotorua Sanatorium were not among them.

During these years leading civil servants such as Edward Tregear in the Labour Department and George Hogben in the Education Department were at the forefront of reforms which laid the foundations of modern New Zealand. As secretary for education under the Liberals, Hogben introduced uniform salaries and a superannuation scheme for teachers, and a grants scheme that opened up places in secondary schools for children from low-income backgrounds. Tregear, secretary of the Department of Labour, regulated working conditions in shops and factories.

How to cite this page:

Richard Shaw, 'Public service - What is the public service?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Richard Shaw, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 8 Mar 2021