Story: Public service

Page 5. The public service in the 2000s

All images & media in this story

How departments are run

A civil servant from the late 19th century might struggle to recognise the public service of 2011. Public servants support the government of the day, rather than the party or parties that make up the government. They are appointed by their department, rather than by a central body or a minister. They offer ministers free and frank advice, which sometimes means telling ministers what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear, and they do not lose their jobs when there is a change of government.

While chief executives must manage the day-to-day affairs of their departments so that they contribute to the government’s policy aims, government ministers are the political heads of departments. Ministers are responsible for deciding the policies their departments must support, and must answer to Parliament for the performance of departments.

Types of workers

In 1913 the public service employed 17 arts graduates, 22 accountants, 47 lawyers, 155 engineers and scientists, and 33 officers with other qualifications. In 2011 there were 5,105 managers, 2,626 policy analysts, 3,411 information professionals, and 2,129 legal, human resources and finance professionals in government departments.

Diverse departments

Departments vary considerably in size and role. Some are much larger than others. In 2010, for example, the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs had 38 staff, while the Inland Revenue Department employed 5,512 people.

Some departments, including Treasury and the Ministry for the Environment, focus mainly on providing policy advice to ministers. Others, such as the Conservation and Corrections departments, and the Ministry of Social Development, mainly deliver goods and services to citizens. Many departments combine policy advice with service delivery. Others also purchase services from other organisations, or regulate and monitor the performance of other agencies.

The three most powerful

Some departments are more influential than others. The three ‘central agencies’ are the most powerful.

  • Treasury is the government’s main adviser on financial and economic policy. It manages the Crown’s finances and assesses the cost of what other departments wish to do.
  • The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet supports cabinet (and the governor-general), and serves as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the prime minister.
  • The Public Service Commission advises the government on the structure of the state sector. The Public Service Commissioner appoints and reviews the performance of departments’ chief executives, and is responsible for leadership skills and ethics, values and standards of behaviour across the state sector.

The public service in the 2000s

In June 2010 there were 32 government departments employing 44,554 people. Nearly 59% of public servants were women (compared with 47% in the wider labour force), although women held only just over a third (37.8%) of senior management positions. More than 16% of the public service workforce was Māori; 7.6% were of Pacific and 7.4% of Asian ethnicity.

Acknowledgements to John Martin

How to cite this page:

Richard Shaw, 'Public service - The public service in the 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

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