Public sector reform – the Public Service Act

The Public Service Act 1912 was based on the report of the ‘Hunt Commission’, which had identified problems such as a lack of co-ordination and inadequate salaries in the public service. The report was also critical of the degree of political control in the public service.

The Act created a public service created a unified, politically neutral career public service based on entry by competitive examination, promotion on merit and with security of tenure and pensions upon retirement.  It was controlled by a single Public Service Commissioner, supported by two assistant commissioners, with appointments and wage setting free from political interference.  Employees were graded into four divisions – administrative, professional, clerical and general – and the whole service was to be regraded every five years. Staff employed by Railways, the Legislative and Police Departments, and the military, plus smaller groups such as judges, were excluded. Donald Robertson was appointed the first Public Service Commissioner at the start of 1913.

The legislation created the modern public service and the framework it put in place lasted through until the State Sector Act of 1988. Many of its underlying principles, such as political neutrality, are still reflected in the legislation we have. It is no coincidence that the New Zealand Public Service Association was established the following year as it created a structure in which a public service union could flourish.

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