Gordon Campbell on the latest Novopay revelations

Poor lambs. They were led astray by shockingly poor advice from their officials. All of it was an operational failure within the Education Ministry and the State Services Commission, folks. Yes, according to the Novopay ministerial inquiry, the buck for the flawed teacher pay system rests entirely with the bureaucrats, and not at all with the three Ministers who signed off on Novopay. Those three government Ministers – Hekia Parata, Bill English and Craig Foss – have been completely exonerated by the inquiry headed up by Maarten Wevers, the former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The advice on which the Ministers based their approval has turned out to have been deeply flawed, and the inquiry’s findings have been accepted by the Education Ministry’s current head Peter Hughes, brought in six months ago after the resignation of the previous chief executive, Lesley Longstone.

Despite the outright errors (and the rumblings of concern from some Education Ministry officials that were apparently omitted or downplayed in the advice stream that went to Ministers) it is still difficult to accept the accuracy of the political eco-system depicted in the 112 page inquiry document. There may be a parallel reality Wellington where Ministers are held entirely hostage to the whims and wiles of their officials, but it is not the world in which most of us live. What is far more evident is the sight of panicked officials struggling to contort the facts to meet the wishes and timetables imposed on them by Ministers and their parliamentary staff. A culture of “make it happen” exists in which those who raise doubts about the Minister’s desired course of action are commonly seen as hindrances, and not as a valuable reality check.

The ministerial inquiry is silent on this generally poisonous climate of Ministerial advice, and on the inability of a healthy system of checks and balances to thrive within it. This situation doesn’t absolve the Education Ministry for any of the faulty assertions alleged in the ministerial inquiry report, but it might go some way to explaining how such mistakes came to be made. As I’ve mentioned before, success in the Beltway tends to be Ministerialised while failure gets heaped on the hapless officials within in our current system. The Novopay debacle does appear to have been a bad example of officialdom’s failure to meet appropriate standards, but Ministers cannot expect to escape taking any responsibility whatsoever for this outcome, either in general or in specific terms. The Novopay system was known to be a calculated risk, and a system that had been piloted to the barest minimum operational level. In which case, surely a greater level of cross checking by each Minister’s own staff before final sign off was also a reasonable expectation? Allegedly, the supposed ‘independent’ checks and balances from the likes of the SSC got captured during the drive to get Novopay up and running.

Are we seriously expected to believe that the three Minister’s offices were all entirely (and validly) passive in that process of capture, as it unfolded beneath their innocently trusting gaze? That’s not how things happen around the Beehive. Ministers and their office staff drive the agenda, and officials hop to it. Novopay looks more like a situation where Ministers wanted something on time, officials read this an offer they couldn’t refuse and so tailored the paperwork accordingly. No amount of whitewash can absolve the errors that resulted. But neither can the whitewash obscure the fact that there is a joint responsibility to be shouldered for Novopay, by politicians and officials alike.

Every week in Wellington, overworked and understaffed officials scramble to meet ministerial demands and deadlines. Many of them make those deadlines by good fortune and via panicked last minute cramming, as much as by well organized hard work and good management. This morning, many public servants around Wellington will be looking at the Novopay debacle and thinking that there but for the grace of God and some generous lashings of luck, go I.