The public service in 1914

Stratford government building, 1913

In 1914 the public service had 33,000 permanent employees, including railway workers, post and telegraph staff, teachers and police, and 16,000 temporary employees, mainly in public works and railways. The 42 government departments ranged in size from the Cook Islands Administration Department’s handful of staff to the Railways Department’s 14,000.  

Most public servants were male and saw the service as providing a job for life. Applicants for permanent employment were required to pass an entry examination and to put their personal political convictions aside in the interests of a non-partisan public service. Employees ranged from highly skilled senior administrators to technical specialists, from typists and teachers to labourers digging roads and quarantine officers inspecting animals at the ports. 

When New Zealand’s public service was founded in 1840 it comprised just 39 individuals. Slow growth during the Crown Colony period (1840–53) preceded more rapid expansion during the provincial period (1853–76), and by 1866 the central government had 1602 employees. The state served the basic needs of a colonial society, providing a judicial and penal system, machinery to manage and record land ownership, taxation, postal services, public works, mental hospitals, and a few other basic functions. On the abolition of the provinces in 1876 many of their functions were taken over by the central government.

The Liberal government of 1891–1912 expanded the role of the public service dramatically. The Liberals created 12 new departments to implement and manage their ambitious legislative programme. These aimed, among other things, to improve unjust employment conditions, raise standards of living, and expand the agricultural, commercial and industrial sectors.  

Across New Zealand

The public service of 1914 was scattered from one end of the country to the other, with each department managed by a ‘permanent head’, a chief executive based in a Wellington headquarters with his staff. Most public servants worked far from Wellington, in small branch offices grouped together in a ‘departmental building’. Some regional staff worked for more than one department. Samuel Tyson of Nelson, for example, was both factory inspector for the Labour Department and Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages for Internal Affairs.  Many more public servants could be found in schools, post offices and police stations dotted across the country. 

In some senses the public service was a united and coherent whole, its work overseen by ministers and funded by annual parliamentary appropriations. In practical terms, however, it was divided between ‘trading departments’ and ‘core departments’. The Railways and Post and Telegraph departments – the two trading departments – were by far the largest government agencies, and were able to earn significant revenue by charging the public for their services. Both had their own staff grading systems and unions, and maintained facilities across the country. The ‘core departments’ – the rest of the public service – provided regulatory services and were mainly funded directly from public revenue. Police officers and teachers had different conditions of employment but were also paid from public funds.

The public service absorbed 68% of expenditure from the consolidated fund in the 1913/14 year (another 24% was used to service public debt and the remainder went on pensions and payments to local bodies). The Railways Department absorbed over a quarter of all government expenditure, the education sector and the Post and Telegraph Department 10% each, Defence 5%, judicial and legal functions 3%, and all the remaining departments 15%. 

Business operations made a substantial contribution to the funding of the public service. The two trading departments provided 43% of all government revenue. Customs duties brought in another 28%, with the remainder coming from taxation and income from Crown land rentals. 

Building and maintaining infrastructure

The central government took charge of large-scale infrastructural development, working to transform the country from the initial development phase of the late 19th century into a modern, productive society participating in the global economy. The Public Works Department was its principal tool in this endeavour, extending the national rail and road networks, employing engineers, draughtsmen, overseers and clerks in large and small depots across the country to plan and undertake the new work that was funded by Parliament each year. It was one of the largest areas of state expenditure.

Public Works handed roads to local bodies on completion, and rail lines to the Railways Department. Railways, with its 4600 km of track, 1100 stations and stops, 534 locomotives, and 21,000 carriages and wagons, was one of the largest businesses in the country. A large workforce of station-masters, engine-drivers, inspectors, engineering tradesmen, foremen, labourers, storekeepers and clerks kept this vast machine working.

Public Works also maintained the ever-expanding network of public buildings and facilities. Every district needed new post offices, schools, hospitals, railway stations, departmental buildings, courthouses and police stations, and wharves, irrigation works, lighthouses and other structures were regularly requested. Once built, all required ongoing maintenance.

The country’s postal system was a key factor in plans to modernise national infrastructure. Like Railways, the Post and Telegraph Department was a sprawling operation with bases in almost every corner of the country. In 1914 the ‘P & T’s 8136 staff managed 2466 post offices, and delivered more than 180 million items of mail and more than 10 million telegrams. People could send each other post office money orders and invest their savings in post office bank accounts.  

Post offices provided a government presence in areas where no other public servants were based and conducted much work for other departments. They collected customs duties, taxes, and other government fees, sold fishing licences, paid out pensions and government advances, and acted as agent for the Public Trustee and government insurance.  

Coastal shipping was another key component of national infrastructure. All international and interisland, and much internal movement of people and goods was by sea. The Marine Department monitored harbour safety facilities and managed unincorporated harbours in the interests of safety and efficiency. Marine Department officers were based at all significant ports.

Education and health care

The government introduced compulsory free, secular primary school education for all children in 1877, and by 1914 the Education Department was maintaining 2449 primary, secondary and Native schools in which 5672 teachers taught 187,060 pupils. Regional education boards managed public schools on the government’s behalf, while the Education Department managed Native Schools directly. Maintaining schools was a huge ongoing burden, and new schools were constantly required in newly settled areas. Education’s school inspectors were tasked with ensuring a high standard of teaching. Schools, like post offices, were an omnipresent symbol of the state in all but the most remote regions of the country. 

The Public Health Department was responsible for stopping the spread of infectious diseases and providing a few basic hospital facilities. The department divided the country into four ‘sanitary districts’, each presided over by a district health officer with the authority to declare buildings, animals or objects diseased or unsanitary and order their destruction. They could also limit the movement of sick people or animals, order water supplies to be purified, prevent the discharge of waste into waterways, and declare any place an isolation hospital. The department employed a number of sanitary inspectors to assist the district health officers, as well as district nurses who worked in Māori communities and the staff of St Helen’s maternity hospital in Auckland and Te Waikato Sanatorium near Cambridge.  Its work was supported by the Dominion and Bacteriological laboratories in Wellington.

The public hospital system, like the education system, was maintained by local bodies under government supervision, but the government managed the mental hospital system directly through its Mental Hospitals Department. Maintaining the Avondale, Tokanui, Porirua, Nelson, Sunnyside and Seacliff hospitals, Mental Health was one of the largest core government departments. 

Justice and defence

Several government departments existed purely to maintain law and order, both through internal policing and by preparing to ward off external threats. The Police Force manned hundreds of police stations across the country, while the Justice Department supported a court system in which only the judges themselves were not public servants. Gaolers and warders maintained large prisons in the four main centres, a network of smaller regional prisons and a handful of prison camps. 

The Defence Department managed the nation’s defence network, which in 1914 was focused on a national territorial force fed by compulsory military training. Defence Headquarters in Wellington oversaw the work of the four military districts based in Auckland, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin. The department’s offices were mainly staffed by members of the New Zealand Permanent Force, military officers supported by civilian public servants in administrative roles.

The Royal New Zealand Artillery maintained and manned the coastal fortifications which protected the four main harbours and Westport. From 1913 the aged cruiser Philomel was stationed in New Zealand as a seagoing training vessel for the newly created New Zealand Naval Forces.

Managing agriculture and industry

By 1914 agriculture was bringing in 87.5% of New Zealand’s export revenue, and a large public service apparatus had developed to support its expansion and promote and protect the New Zealand brand. Expansion could best be stimulated by increasing both the number of settlers and the number of farms. The Native Department’s ongoing efforts to purchase Māori land kept ‘new’ land flowing onto the market, with the Lands and Survey Department surveying and subdividing the blocks for ‘selection’ by aspiring farmers. Cheap development finance from the Advances to Settlers Office enabled the land to be brought into production. The ‘opening up’ of Crown land was accompanied – at least in theory – by the arrival of Public Works Department gangs to build roads, bridges and sometimes branch railways to connect the new farms to the outside world. To help promote economic development, the government repeatedly cut the rates the railways charged for carrying agricultural products.

Local Agriculture Department officers played an educative role, teaching farmers about pasture development and stock management with the goal of increasing production. The department operated six experimental farms to promote scientific farming, with their findings disseminated through the departmental Journal of Agriculture. The Agriculture Department also policed the farming sector. Its stock inspectors could fine farmers and require them to destroy diseased livestock to stop illness spreading, while weed and rabbit inspectors could demand the eradication of those pests. Orchards and apiaries were subject to similar inspections, and plants and animals arriving from overseas were inspected for signs of disease. Livestock inspectors and government veterinarians inspected meat for export, while dairy inspectors examined and graded butter. Dairy factories and abattoirs were licensed to operate only under strict regulations.

Public servants played a similar role in enforcing workplace safety and streamlining relations between employer and worker. An army of inspectors ensured observance of the many rules dictating working conditions and safety. The Arbitration Court and regional conciliation boards determined rates of pay, hours and other conditions on the basis of the cost of living in each area and the unique circumstances of each industry. These determinations were policed by the Labour Department, whose factory inspectors were legally entitled to enter any workplace to ensure compliance, with employers obliged to open their doors and their records under threat of prosecution. The department also registered workers’ unions and factories, and managed aspects of the female labour market, rural employment and rent control, all with the broader goal of easing industrial tensions and increasing the efficiency of New Zealand’s industry.

The Marine Department, too, was charged with ensuring workplace safety. Its inspectors could enter workplaces and demand, for example, that flywheels or steam engines be fenced off to protect passers-by. They inspected boilers and checked the competence of those operating machinery. The marine inspectors based at major ports oversaw the management of ships and their crews. They had similar powers to factory inspectors, being permitted to enter any ship and inspect the people, equipment and records aboard for breaches of the relevant Acts. They checked crew numbers, certificates of competency, the appropriateness of pay and the suitability of quarters. Ships were also checked for seaworthiness and proper equipment. The Marine Department also employed fisheries inspectors who ensured that fishing boats were licensed and that restrictions on the fishing industry were observed.

The Mines Department maintained offices in all the main coal-mining regions and inspected private coal mines to ensure they were being operated safely.The Liberal government, dissatisfied with the high prices it had to pay for coal, had also established a State Coal Mines Department in 1901 to operate collieries on its behalf. Coal was critical to the operation of the railway system, and was also used for heating, cooking and generating electricity. Of the 112,605 tonnes of coal produced by the state mines in 1913/14, 62,343 tonnes was used by government departments and the rest sold to private customers.

Other government services

The public service administered a number of registration systems to ensure standards prescribed by law were being met and to keep track of key information. Various departments kept tabs on responsible professions, ensuring, for example, that medical professionals were properly qualified to practise in New Zealand. The Lands and Deeds Department maintained a registry of land ownership in conjunction with the records of titles to Māori land held by regional Native Land Courts. The Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages, now within the Department of Internal Affairs, had maintained a register of Pākehā vital records since the colony’s early years. The Patent Office registered developments in intellectual property, while the Electoral Branch of Internal Affairs ensured the integrity of national elections.

Some departments existed purely to serve the complex internal needs of the government and the public service. Several collected revenue from the public, with the Customs Department raking in the greatest amount. The Land and Income Tax Department taxed some assets and high incomes, while the Stamps Department taxed legal transactions. The Government Printing Office, one of the larger departments, existed solely to print official publications such as statutes, parliamentary debates and the New Zealand Gazette. The Crown Law Office advised departments on legal matters, while the Audit Office and Treasury managed departmental expenditure. The Valuation Department ensured consistency in land values as the basis for central and local government taxation. The Public Service Superannuation Department offered pension schemes to police, teachers, railways employees and general public servants.

Several departments provided affordable financial services to the public. The government operated two insurance companies, Government Life Insurance and State Fire Insurance, which offered policies to poorer people and kept private insurers honest. The National Provident Fund, a superannuation scheme for the less well-off, was subsidised by the state and administered in conjunction with the registration and supervision of friendly societies. The Public Trust, which employed more than 200 people across the country, administered private estates and funds on behalf of the public. The Pensions Department issued pensions to the elderly, widows and Pākehā veterans of the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand conducted no foreign policy independent of Britain and had no department dealing specifically with diplomatic relations. It had, however, annexed the Cook Islands in 1901, so a small Cook Islands Department was based in Wellington, from where a single clerk corresponded with a string of New Zealand public servants scattered across the islands. The Cook Islands and Niue had Resident Commissioners, while the smaller ones had Resident Agents. The Cooks also had two medical officers, a registrar of courts, a collector of customs, an engineer, a clerk to the local government and a fruit inspector. A seconded New Zealand constable headed the local police force.

New Zealand’s Tourist Department promoted overseas interest in New Zealand’s natural attractions, operating transport and accommodation facilities which enabled visitors to reach and enjoy beauty spots. It invested in the thermal attractions of Rotorua and Hanmer Springs, and built facilities around Mt Cook. Nine dedicated staff managed the Dominion Museum, which was located in Museum St behind Parliament.

The public service commissioner

‘Scientific management’ was all the rage in the two decades before the war, and reformers worked to instil the passion for ‘efficiency’ popularised by the American Frederick Winslow Taylor into the New Zealand public service. In 1913, most of the public service was put under the control of a public service commissioner. Departments had been operated in close co-operation with their political overlords since the early colonial period, with ministers playing a central role in daily management and the hiring and firing of staff. This hampered co-operation between departments and allowed ministers to employ political supporters. This ‘political patronage’ was a particularly potent issue during the Liberal government’s tenure, and the commission of inquiry it launched in 1912 recommended change.

Donald Robertson

Dunedin-born Donald Robertson was the first public service commissioner, holding the position from January 1913 until April 1920. He set out to reform the the public service, but the outbreak of the First World War put a halt to his plans. Read his biography.

In January 1913, the Reform government which had succeeded the Liberals appointed Donald Robertson as public service commissioner, entrusting him with responsibility for the management of public service personnel. The public service would still serve the needs of the government of the day, but ministers would no longer play a part in its recruitment and management. This move helped ensure the service’s political neutrality and ‘permanence’, and meant it could not be packed with political supporters after a change of government.

A few individual officers, such as private secretaries to ministers, were exempt from the commissioner’s control. The Railway Department, sworn police officers, teachers and members of the armed forces fell outside the commissioner system, retaining their existing management structures and systems of job classification.

Robertson set about bringing consistency to the public service. He reconfigured records management systems, introduced a service-wide recruitment process – and restricted the public service entry examinations to male candidates. Robertson inspected every department and quickly launched a service-wide system of job classification with a consistent pay structure. His decisions on classification, appointments and promotions could be overturned by an Appeals Board. 

Public service unions

By 1914 a number of employee organisations existed to present the concerns of public servants to the public service commissioner and Parliament. The Public Service Association (PSA), with 4000 members, represented all the core departments, while the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants – representing most railways employees – had 8000 members. Other railway workers were represented by the New Zealand Railway Officers’ Institute and the New Zealand Locomotive Engine Drivers, Firemen and Cleaners’ Association. Post and Telegraph staff were represented by the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Officers’ Association, and teachers by the New Zealand Educational Institute. Police were eligible for membership of the PSA, but the police commissioner took a dim view of ‘combination’ and few officers joined up before 1916. The public service unions tended to be moderate in character and had few connections to the more militant private sector unions. They worked within the system to secure benefits such as superannuation and seniority-based promotion and pay.

Female staff

Like most professions, the public service was predominantly male in 1914. Most of the core departments in Wellington employed a few female clerks and typists, and some employed charwomen to clean their offices. Departments generally considered women most suitable for duties aligned with traditional female domestic and nurturing roles. The Prisons Branch employed matrons to care for female prisoners, and the Mental Hospitals Department employed a large number of female nurses to care for patients. State farms and industrial schools for wayward youths employed women as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses and maids, and female masseuses and bath attendants assisted at the government baths at Rotorua. A few women had charge of small nursing units or industrial schools for young women, while the Government Printing Office employed a ‘forewoman’ in its Binding Branch and the Government Museum a female ‘Museum Assistant’. Miss Hester Maclean, the assistant inspector of hospitals in charge of St Helens maternity hospitals, was the only woman in a position of any authority.

On his appointment as public service commissioner, Robertson had excluded women from public service examinations and ruled that the few in clerical roles should be paid less than their male counterparts. This move reflected a prevalent belief that men would stay in one workplace for most of their working lives, gaining experience and acting as their household’s chief breadwinner. Women who married were expected to resign from employment and become financially dependent on their husbands.

On the eve of war

The New Zealand public service of August 1914 was a well-organised bureaucracy, dispersed geographically but managed by a highly centralised leadership. Its staff was unionised but generally interested in working within the system. Its hierarchical structure reflected the contemporary enthusiasm for scientific management and gave its military-aged staff some sense of what life in uniform would be like. The state had a more active infrastructural and economic development role than in most other countries, reflecting Pākehā society’s push to move the country from its pioneering origins to efficiency and competitiveness in the global marketplace. It was not specifically prepared for war, but its bureaucratic values and structures were a foundation for the large-scale organisation that war would require. 

Further information

This article was written by Tim Shoebridge and produced by the NZHistory team. It was commissioned by the State Services Commission. A fully footnoted version is available to download as a pdf here.

Primary sources

The annual reports of government departments for the years 1914 and 1915 published in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives provided most of the information for this article. See also Statutes of New Zealand, the 1914 and 1915 issues of the New Zealand Official Year-book, and the public service lists published in the New Zealand Gazette.


  • Alan Henderson, The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission, State Services Commission, Wellington, 1990
  • R.J. Polaschek, Government administration in New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Public Administration, Wellington, 1958
  • Bert Roth, Remedy for present evils: a history of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890, New Zealand Public Service Association, Wellington, 1987
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'The public service in 1914', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Nov-2016

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