Public Service Act passed into law

7 November 1912

Alexander Herdman, 1919 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-018385-G )

The Public Service Act was passed into law, creating a framework for New Zealand’s bureaucracy that was to endure until 1988. The Act was the brainchild of lawyer Alexander Herdman, a senior minister in the new Reform Party government.

Especially under the long-serving Premier Richard Seddon (‘King Dick’), the previous Liberal government had been notorious for meddling in the personnel management of the civil service. Seddon’s interventions became the stuff of legend. A departmental head who objected to the appointment of an illiterate West Coaster was apparently told to ‘Learn him!’ When a Reform politician complained about jobs going to friends of the Liberals, Seddon asked, ‘Do they expect us to give them to our enemies?’ Herdman’s goal was to replace patronage and inconsistency with ‘scientific management’.

Under the Public Service Act, state servants became the responsibility of the Public Service Commissioner, a statutory officer with authority over the whole public service. The employment of school-leavers who had passed the public service examination was encouraged, and that of temporary staff discouraged. With most positions soon graded through a job evaluation system, a unified structure replaced what had been quasi-independent fiefdoms. Career progression was enhanced by statutory preference for current public servants when appointments were made.

Herdman thought that businesslike personnel management would enable the Commissioner to achieve his wider objectives of ‘efficiency and economy’. But in this sphere the Commissioner could make only recommendations, and streamlining the organisation and operations of government departments was to prove to be a much tougher task than classifying the jobs within them.

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