Story: Public service

Page 2. Political control

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The governor’s men

Until the early 1900s the civil service operated on the basis of political patronage. Initially, this meant that the governor had the personal power to hire, promote, discipline and fire civil servants. Until 1856 all civil servants were members of the British Colonial Service, and the governor had to report each appointment to the Colonial Office in England. He also made decisions about civil servants’ terms and conditions of employment, including rates of pay, and intervened directly in the running of departments. After 1856 these powers were transferred to government ministers.

19th-century job descriptions

In 1868 there were 79 different occupations in government departments. They included the posts of arms cleaner, boatman, bugler, Chinese interpreter, coast waiter, coxswain, crier, housekeeper, landing waiter, locker, receiver of gold revenue, searcher, sheriff, sub-collector of customs, stamper, tide surveyor and tide waiter.

Competing departments

In the 19th century,, political control was absolute and regarded as appropriate, to the extent that ministers saw themselves as ‘officials’. This system of personal political control created problems. Appointments often depended on the relationship a job applicant had with a minister (or with someone close to the minister), rather than on that person’s skills or merits. Because departments were controlled by individual ministers, they developed their own systems of operating, and it became difficult to coordinate their activities. The Hunt Commission of 1912 noted that this led to ‘a great tendency for each department to magnify and glorify itself.’1

Use fewer words

In the early days, government ministers monitored how much departments spent on sending telegrams. Any ‘diffusely worded’ telegrams were to be reported directly to ministers.

The civil service grows

As civil servants’ jobs became more complex, it became clear that many ministers lacked the skills needed to run their departments. As the number of civil servants grew, ministers also struggled to balance the demands of running departments with their parliamentary responsibilities. In 1867, the nine cabinet ministers oversaw 1,600 civil servants, but by 1912 the same number of ministers were responsible for 23,000 employees. Many of these worked in just two departments – the burgeoning Railways and Post & Telegraph departments.

Soldiers first, women last

In 1906, soldiers who had served in the South African War were given preference over other applicants for civil service positions. Women, even those who passed the competitive entrance examination, were only appointed to ‘such vacancies … as are suitable for girls’.2 Very few women were appointed.

Pressure for reform builds

As dissatisfaction with this state of affairs grew, governments tried – with limited success – to address the problems and to bring greater uniformity to staffing arrangements. Prompted by civil service reform in Victoria, a royal commission investigated the efficiency of New Zealand’s civil service in 1866. Noting that there was ‘no rule as to appointments, no rule as to promotions, no rule as to dismissals’, it called for the introduction of non-competitive entry exams and a set of standard regulations to cover all departments.3

Too big, too much

Public concerns about the size of government departments and the generosity of public servants’ pay are not new. On 30 March 1909, the Dominion newspaper criticised ‘increases which have been made in the staffing and … salaries of the Civil Service during the last 15 years, out of all proportion to the increase in the population.’4

The commission’s recommendations were included in the Civil Service Act 1866, which specified that people applying for civil service posts must be aged between 17 and 23 years, and provide evidence of good health and moral character. The Civil Service Reform Act 1886 introduced competitive examinations for selection into the civil service. However, these requirements were increasingly bypassed by the ‘backdoor’ appointment of ‘temporary’ staff, many of whom were employed for long periods.

  1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1912, H-34, p.13. Back
  2. Quoted in Alan Henderson, The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission. Wellington: State Services Commission, 1990, p. 22. Back
  3. Quoted in Ian Sinclair Ewing, ‘Public service reform in New Zealand, 1866–1912.’ MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1979, p. 1. Back
  4. Quoted in ‘Public service reform in New Zealand,’ p. 236. Back
How to cite this page:

Richard Shaw, 'Public service - Political control', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

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