Staff ImMaryanne Spurdle holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Auckland, a BA in Communications from California State University at Fullerton, and is a World Journalism Institute Fellow. She held a variety of positions before joining Maxim Institute in 2023, writing, editing and designing material for mainstream media and non-profit organisations. One of Maryanne's early roles was at a charity that supports vulnerable and homeless adults in the north of England. That experience informed and fuelled her desire to discover and communicate the best ways that families, communities, and governments can encourage human flourishing in a complex world.ages scaling

Cake one day, crumbs the next

By Maryanne Spurdle March 28, 2024

After years of aspirational leadership, we’ve been served a cold slice of reality in place of the delectable cake of good intentions. Headlines announcing former Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s farewell to Parliament competed with stories of abrupt cuts to ministries and public services, and the news we’re officially in a recession.

Robertson’s valedictory speech brimmed with fond memories, good laughs, and the straight-faced claim that he had been committed to balance in his recipes for our economy.

However, just hours earlier, the IMF painted a different picture of his financial management: “Debt increased more rapidly than in many advanced economies in recent years and will continue its upward trajectory absent decisive consolidation.”

Robertson and his colleagues were fond of impossible goals. They chased zero road deaths, zero child poverty, and a “smoke-free” Aotearoa while making zero dents in any of those problems.

New Zealand hasn’t simply been a victim of global setbacks; we elected people who were masters at expressing good intentions without questioning the viability of their plans. Good intentions untethered from reality are a recipe for disappointment.

By untethered, I mean promising schools more and fancier buildings than the Ministry of Education ever had funds for.

Or pouring money into businesses affected by Government-imposed lockdowns without matching that generosity with accountability.

Or beginning ambitious infrastructure projects without the means to finish them.

Returning public service staffing levels to at least 2017 levels is a reasonable place to start addressing the Government’s spending excesses.

Robertson and his colleagues were fond of impossible goals. They chased zero road deaths, zero child poverty, and a “smoke-free” Aotearoa while making zero dents in any of those problems. (Unless, that is, you call replacing each ex-cigarette smoker with an even younger vaper “progress.”)

Higher taxes and even new taxes may be the price we end up paying for this well-intentioned lack of good management. Returning public service staffing levels to at least 2017 levels is a reasonable place to start addressing the Government’s spending excesses. Despite what the Public Service Association tells us, each additional back-office staff member does not automatically improve services.

Is the Ministry of Education, for instance, performing better today with 4,311 staff (plus contractors) than it did three years ago with 2,900? Literacy scores are down. Ditto attendance. And teachers are fleeing the profession.

While the Ministry bursts at the seams, teachers are less supported than ever, and students’ academic performance continues to decline.

Since the year 2000, student numbers have grown 14% while the number of Ministry staff has grown 620%. The fact that they are paid, on average, tens of thousands of dollars a year more than actual teachers gives us a clue as to who the Government thinks is more valuable.

While the Ministry bursts at the seams, teachers are less supported than ever, and students’ academic performance continues to decline. We have passed the point at which size becomes inversely related to value. The same applies to healthcare, welfare, and infrastructure: we don’t need more cooks in the kitchen, we need better ones.

This Government is faced with a brutal task as New Zealand slips away from the economic recovery most other countries are experiencing. It can either put national services on a strict diet or continue serving up tucker that we—and our children—will be paying back for years to come. If we don’t tighten our belts today, cake won’t be on the menu tomorrow.

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Researcher Maryanne Spurdle explains the thinking behind her column.

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Staff ImMaryanne Spurdle holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Auckland, a BA in Communications from California State University at Fullerton, and is a World Journalism Institute Fellow. She held a variety of positions before joining Maxim Institute in 2023, writing, editing and designing material for mainstream media and non-profit organisations. One of Maryanne's early roles was at a charity that supports vulnerable and homeless adults in the north of England. That experience informed and fuelled her desire to discover and communicate the best ways that families, communities, and governments can encourage human flourishing in a complex world.ages scaling

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