Paul Desiré Nestor Verschaffelt was born in Napier on 21 May 1887, the son of Irish-born Mary Nestor and her husband, Desiré Verschaffelt, a gardener, who was born in Belgium. Paul was educated at the Marist brothers' St Mary's Boys' School, Napier, where he was judged to be 'of good moral repute. Honest & industrious & gifted with an intellect capable of grasping the serious grades of thought'.
Verschaffelt entered the public service on 1 January 1904 as a clerical cadet in the Department of Lands and Survey. In 1907 he was transferred to the department's head office in Wellington and the following year qualified as an accountant. He shifted to the newly established Office of the Public Service Commissioner as a clerk on 1 February 1913 and on 30 December that year married Eanie Stella Martin in Wellington. In 1915 he was promoted to secretary, and after graduating LLB from Victoria University College in 1919 was admitted as a barrister and solicitor.
Between 1919 and 1921 Verschaffelt served in the Public Trust Office as controller of wills, trusts and agencies and as chief accountant, returning to the Office of the Public Service Commissioner as assistant commissioner on 1 March 1921. In February 1923, on the retirement of W. R. Morris, he became acting commissioner and on 1 June was appointed commissioner for a seven-year term. His wife, Eanie, had died in September 1920, a month after the birth of their third child, and in Dunedin on 29 December 1923, Verschaffelt married Olive Beryl Norwood.
Verschaffelt's appointment as public service commissioner was marked by controversy. The Protestant Political Association, strong supporters of Prime Minister William Massey, campaigned openly and actively against the appointment of a Catholic. The New Zealand Public Service Association, on the other hand, supported the appointment of a public servant: the two previous commissioners had been from the Post and Telegraph Department. Despite the stresses of the next decade, an improved working relationship between the commissioner and the PSA marked Verschaffelt's administration.
The Public Service Act 1912 had laid the foundations for an apolitical, merit-based, unified public service. Verschaffelt was thus present at the birth of the modern public service and as commissioner between 1923 and 1935 did much to consolidate the peculiarly apolitical nature of the New Zealand system. The position obliged him to face two ways: his independence in the appointment and discipline of individual public servants was central to the statutory role; at the same time, he needed to be responsive to the policies of the government of the day and to fiscal realities.
Throughout Verschaffelt's time as commissioner, but particularly during the depression of the 1930s, the overriding concern was the pursuit of economy and efficiency in the public service. At the end of 1930 Prime Minister George Forbes appointed a ministerial economy committee with which Verschaffelt was associated. The emphasis was on cost saving, notably through a reduction of all state employees' salaries and wages by 10 per cent. In 1932 further reductions in pay and economies in departmental organisation and activity followed the report of the National Expenditure Commission.
In this climate of fiscal constraint the opportunity for innovation in public sector personnel management was limited. Contemporary and later commentators have been critical of the way the public service between the wars neglected to recruit the best and brightest candidates. Long-term staffing was affected by constraints on the recruitment of cadets in the early 1930s, a matter of concern to Verschaffelt, but he remained implacably opposed to the recruitment of university graduates. The system under which he had progressed – entry as a cadet on leaving school and part-time study – was consistent with his egalitarian ethos.
Verschaffelt enjoyed the confidence of successive governments, and ministers also sought his advice on issues beyond his direct responsibilities. In 1928 he visited Western Samoa with C. A. Berendsen and A. D. Park: they reported that the Samoan public service was 'by no means creditable to New Zealand'. In 1930 he was reappointed for a second seven-year term as commissioner and was made a CMG. Between 1933 and 1935 he worked with Gordon Coates's 'brains trust' on economic and fiscal policy and in 1935, as a ‘technical expert’, he accompanied Coates to London for discussions on trade policy.
This last trip was described in the press at the time as a 'political mystery', as was his unexplained resignation while in London. In fact, Verschaffelt had for some time been under treatment for alcoholism, no doubt exacerbated by his heavy workload. In 1934 he had been asked by the government to undergo treatment at Queen Mary Hospital, Hanmer Springs. Still only 48 when he resigned, with two years left of his warrant of appointment and almost nine years before statutory retirement, this remarkable public servant was never again to advise the Crown. But he did not disappear from the public domain. Sadly, his remaining years were punctuated with appearances before the courts, and periods in Rotoroa Inebriates' Institution, Mount Eden prison, and Porirua Hospital. Perhaps the most notorious incident was his expulsion from Parliament by the Speaker for protesting from the gallery about the 'abortion of a bill' which became the Public Service Amendment Act 1946.
By 1955 Verschaffelt and his wife were living apart; their only child, a daughter, had died at 13 in 1939. On his retirement Verschaffelt was hailed as 'able and strong-charactered' and 'a public figure of considerable size'. A colleague, W. B. Sutch, later described him as having 'one of the finest minds and broadest judgments of any New Zealand civil servant of this century'. Paul Verschaffelt died in Napier on 16 February 1959, survived by his wife and the three children of his first marriage.