What is the public service?
The public service is made up of government departments. The term ‘public service’ is sometimes also used for the wider state sector, which includes health boards and other Crown entities. It was sometimes called the civil service.
Government departments have run a range of things, such as railways, mining, education, police, electricity and hospitals.
Early public servants
When New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840, the country gained its first public servants – people who work for the government. At first the governor controlled the public service and people were often appointed on the basis of who they knew, rather than their skills. Very few women worked in the public service.
Since 1866 a series of royal commissions have reviewed the public service and reforms have followed. After the 1912 Hunt Commission a new organisation, the Public Service Commission, was set up to oversee the public service. Employees were hired through the commission and it standardised their work terms and conditions. It also meant that the public service could be kept free of political interference.
In 1962 the McCarthy Commission reviewed the public service. The Public Service Commission gained more powers and became the State Services Commission.
1980s and 1990s
The Labour government elected in 1984 restructured many public service departments with the aim of making them more efficient. The public service was cut considerably. A number of departments were turned into businesses and some were sold. Public servants no longer had the security of a job for life.
Public service departments support the elected government, but are politically neutral. Government ministers decide on the policies that departments support.
Government departments range greatly in size. For example, in 2010 the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs had only 38 staff, while the Inland Revenue Department employed 5,512.
Some departments focused on providing policy advice to ministers, while others delivered goods and services to the public.
In 2020, the State Services Commission was renamed the Public Service Commission.