For more than 100 years, New Zealand public-sector employment has been driven by the merit principle. All employment decisions must reflect the appointee’s ability to do the job, rather than political or other considerations.
Prior to 1910, though there were laws protecting the integrity of state employment, they were often circumvented by temporary appointments. During the period of the Liberal government (1891–1912) ministers often encouraged or required the appointment of their friends and allies at all levels of public employment. The extent of patronage became a scandal. A key part of the 1911 election programme of the Reform Party was the establishment of an independent non-partisan statutory officer to manage government employment.
Public service commissioner
Once in office the Reform government established the new position of public service commissioner, with responsibility for all public-service departments. The two largest government agencies of the day, the Post and Telegraph Office and the Railways Department, were excluded. The first public service commissioner, Donald Robertson, started work in 1913 as the employer of all other public servants.
Taking the merit principle to heart
Tom Mark, public service commissioner from 1938 to 1941, is the only commissioner to have died in office – literally. He succumbed to a sudden heart attack while arguing with a minister, in the minister’s office, about the employment of the head of the Patent Office.
Robertson’s most important tasks were to classify all public-service positions and to grade their incumbents. That became the basis of pay rates that applied across the public service. For more than 75 years that classification system endured (with extensive modifications) as the means by which all public servants were appointed and employed. In 1962 the Public Service Commission was renamed the State Services Commission, but its power was not extended beyond the public service.
This remote management structure was complemented by a public service appeal board which could review any appointment. Appeals were judged against the requirements of merit in the job. They could be lodged against any appointment and commonly took months to resolve.
Merit not proven
In 1971 there was a successful appeal against the appointment of Robin Williams as director-general of education. Dr Williams was a former senior official of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, a former member of the State Services Commission, and currently vice-chancellor of the University of Otago (and a future chair of the State Services Commission). The appeal board ruled that the State Services Commission had failed to demonstrate that he clearly had more merit than the appellant, so the appointment was struck out.
State Sector Act 1988
In 1988 the State Sector Act removed the special employment status of public servants. The classification system was abolished. All public servants were to be employed by the head of the relevant department. Appointments were still to be based on merit, but terms and conditions were agreed between the employer and the employee under the same employment law as for other New Zealanders.
The separate appeals system was abolished, although each department still had to have an internal procedure to review appointments. The state services commissioner continued to be responsible for maintaining the non-partisan role of the public service, and was the employer (on behalf of the Crown) of public-service chief executives.
State services integrity
In 2004, 90 years after the position was created, and 40 years after the title was amended to refer to the broader state services, the role of the state services commissioner was extended beyond the core public service to cover standards of integrity and conduct across most agencies of the state services.