Kōrero: Public service

Whārangi 3. Reform, 1912 to 1962

Ngā whakaahua

The 1912 Hunt Royal Commission

A second royal commission in 1880 was followed, in 1912, by the Hunt Royal Commission on the civil service. It was named after its chairperson William Hunt, a successful businessman. The Hunt Commission recommended major changes to the management of the civil service, including the classification of positions, appointment and promotion on the basis of merit, and the transfer of responsibility for appointing staff from individual ministers to an independent body.

Rural posts

Between 1867 and 1912, during an era of considerable rural population growth, the number of country postmasters grew from 315 to 2,560.

The Public Service Act 1912

The Public Service Act 1912 did most – but not all – of the things the Hunt Commission had called for. Notably, the commission had recommended the establishment of a board of management to oversee government departments, and which would report to cabinet. Instead, the new act set up a Public Service Commission, headed by a public service commissioner, which reported to Parliament.

Less booze, more output

William Hunt, who chaired the 1912 Royal Commission, went on to become a prominent member of the Businessmen’s Efficiency League, which supported prohibition on the basis that it led to greater efficiency in business.

Public Service Commission

The new law was a major break with the past. The hiring, firing and promotion of public servants became the responsibility of the public service commissioner (not individual ministers), who would appoint people on their merits. The Public Service Commission also standardised conditions of employment and rates of pay across all government departments.

A job for life?

Referring to the changes of 1912, Leslie Lipson, Victoria University of Wellington’s first professor of political science, observed: ‘with the political parties the modern public service has struck a mutually beneficial bargain. By guaranteeing to public servants a life’s career and a pension, parties have foresworn the use of patronage and have guaranteed to the state’s employees their tenure of jobs. In return the parties expect, and the public servants owe, equal loyalty to any government which the people have placed in office’.1

The Public Service Act 1912 marked the end of the slow transition from a system based on political patronage to one run according to statutory rules, regulations and procedures. Departments, which had long been controlled by individual ministers, were gathered together in a unified public service. The legislation also set up a professional career public service. All public servants were to be managed and employed by a permanent commission that was independent of political control.

The public service did not grow much during the 1920s and into the economic depression of the 1930s. Expansion occurred from 1936, following the election of the first Labour government in 1935. There was further growth during the Second World War which, like the First World War, also provided more opportunities for women to enter the public service as many men were away fighting.

The McCarthy Commission of 1962

The reforms introduced in 1912 remained largely in place until the 1950s. By 1961 the economy had been booming for 20 years and the state’s activities had expanded enormously. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake felt it was time that the state services were reviewed again.

A lot of waffle

The typed record of the evidence heard by the McCarthy Commission in 1962 was 5,524 pages long.

The royal commission appointed in mid-1961 was chaired by Justice Thaddeus McCarthy. Fifty years earlier the Hunt Commission had emphasised the need for ‘consistent, service-wide personnel management’,2 tackled political patronage, and stopped the process of ‘backdoor’ appointments to public service posts. The McCarthy Commission, however, was tasked with promoting ‘efficiency, economy and improved service in the discharge of public business.’3

The State Services Commission

While recommending no major changes in structure, organisation or staffing, the McCarthy Commission saw the need for a new organisation. Its principal recommendation was to replace the Public Service Commission with a new State Services Commission (SSC). The new body would have wider powers than the old one, and would be responsible for the overall efficiency and economy of government administration. The McCarthy Commission recommended that the SSC should report directly to the prime minister, to boost the status of the new organisation, and to ensure support for it at the highest level of government. Because the Public Service Commission had reported to Parliament as a whole, it had had no one to fight its corner in cabinet, and its prestige and influence had diminished over time.

However, the subsequent State Services Act 1962 differed from the McCarthy Commission’s report in some respects. The SSC reported to the minister of state services, rather than the prime minister, and had up to four members, rather than one. The SSC did, however, remain independent in personnel matters relating to individual staff.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Leslie Lipson, The politics of equality: New Zealand’s adventures in democracy. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1948, p. 479. Back
  2. Alan Henderson, The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission. Wellington: State Services Commission, 1990, p. 47 Back
  3. The state services in New Zealand: report of the royal commission of inquiry, Wellington, June 1962. Wellington: Government Printer, 1962, p. 1. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Richard Shaw, 'Public service - Reform, 1912 to 1962', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/public-service/page-3 (accessed 18 September 2019)

Story by Richard Shaw, published 20 Jun 2012