The Management Interview: Michael Wintringham The Thoughtful Bureaucrat

Magazine cover

Political writer Colin James described State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham as the "the archetypal discreet bureaucrat". When things go wrong in the public service he is the focus of the media spotlight. Remember the $1.2 million grievance case unsuccessfully taken against him by former Work and Income chief executive Christine Rankin? Less publicly, and much more importantly, Wintringham is changing the public service. How? Through the chief executives he's now choosing to run it.

By Bob Edlin

When the news media's unforgiving gaze fixed on ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata, the Pipi Foundation and the spending of public grants early this year, State Services Minister Trevor Mallard asked Michael Wintringham to find out which state agencies might have handed money to the foundation.

Wintringham's role and responsibilities, as set out in the State Sector Act, require him to set standards of conduct and integrity for the public service, and to investigate and report on departmental management and performance.

He's also the man who hires and fires the public sector's leaders. He appoints and employs public service chief executives and reviews their performance on behalf of their responsible ministers.

His office is central to New Zealand's politically neutral, professional and permanent public service.

New Zealand's public service was set up in 1912 to be permanent, professional and politically neutral. Anonymity was important. If senior public servants were identified with an aspect of government policy, their ability to work with another government was seemingly undermined.

Now, much of the political debate is personalised and the public, including politicians and ministers, think nothing of attacking individuals. Media coverage is preoccupied with the cult of celebrity and personality.

This reality puts senior public servants at a disadvantage. They can't respond to personal attacks, because entering the public debate compromises their relationship with the government of the day. Ministers once replied to personal criticism on the public servants' behalf. The rules of the game have, however, changed.

Wintringham is less concerned about the occasional unfair comment than he is about four outcomes of the current trend.

He believes that:
1) Persistent personalised criticism of senior public servants unfairly jeopardises their reputations.

2) Taken to extreme the practice will undermine public trust in the institution of government. Public servants must be held to account for their actions but, "if senior servants are fair game for short-term political objectives, there are potentially bad long-term consequences".

3) Personalised attacks on public servants will have an adverse effect on the pool of people willing to accept senior positions. And Wintringham has already met resistance by private sector executives who might otherwise join the public sector.

4) Ultimately this state of affairs will jeopardise the nature of the public service as we've known it.

"And that," says Wintringham, "gets down to the nub of my job. That's why we have a state services commissioner. In our system, the office of state services commissioner is at the centre of the tension between the political process, good management and public trust."

Wintringham has a statutory duty to act independently. He also is chief executive of the State Services Commission, responsible to the Minister of State Services for the commission's capability and performance.

Notwithstanding regular revelations of state-sector ineptitude, maladministration and worse, Wintringham takes enormous satisfaction from proclaiming "we are incorrupt", when he lists the strengths of public sector management standards and practices.

This don of public servants is a methodical and careful thinker. He measures and orders his responses before articulating them. "Among 31,000 to 32,000 public servants you will occasionally get somebody who abuses their office for personal gain," he concedes. "But I am confident we don't have institutionalised corruption. That's important because once it is entrenched it is difficult to eradicate and there are a lot of consequences, such as inefficiency and lack of trust. That is an enormous advantage and one I am determined to defend."

And Wintringham believes New Zealand's public service is efficient and, with some exceptions, practised in decision-making.

He also thinks we have a strong collegial and supportive public-service culture, compared with other jurisdictions. He claims the Australians he has appointed to head the Statistics Department, Inland Revenue Department and Ministry for the Environment confirm this observation. “That gives us a great deal of strength.”

The negatives?

The 1980s and ’90s drive for efficiency generated a comparatively large number of small public sector organisations that focused on a narrow range of objectives. The move, according to Wintringham, was great for efficiency, but stymied important cross-agency cooperation.

And in driving for year-on-year efficiencies “we have failed to invest in long-term capability”, he adds. This has compromised skill levels, from top to bottom.

Wintringham is also concerned that while the public service maintains several formal and informal arrangements for the 40 or so chief executives to work together and interact, no framework exists to hold the next 300 to 400 people together. Once-a-year senior managers convene for a day. But otherwise there is no process for getting managers together to “shape and share views” about where the public service is headed or to develop a better understanding of the issues that will face Government, to share best practice “and basically to feel good about being public servants”.

Apart from a short stint as a private sector management consultant in the 1980s, Wintringham has been a public servant all his working life.

In that time he has learned that systems and structure are important, but they are not sufficient to deliver effective organisational performance, particularly in the state sector. You also need good leaders and managers with strong and shared values.

He has also learned to have confidence in his judgements, though he concedes “that it has been a long time coming”. Acting on (his judgements) and being explicit is “often better than agonising and making no judgement at all”.

Timing too is important, particularly when deciding to respond publicly to an issue and/or publicly support a chief executive or agency facing political pressure.

So, what does the man who appoints the heads of our public sector look for, and how does he rank the attributes an effective leader should have?

“There are as many lists of those [attributes] as there are leadership books on sale at an airport,” he smiles. “But I’ll give you my take on it, though very much from a public-service perspective.”

His leaders and managers must be intelligent, have sound values, a level of achievement, drive or energy. “Without this raw material, you are wasting your investment,” he adds.

And under Wintringham’s watch, New Zealand’s top public servant must knows something about our constitution, the role of a politically neutral public service, and the reasons why we have the public service we do. “Many day-to-day judgements come off those standards.” And of course they need all the basic management skill sets that go with business planning, budgeting, job design and so on.

Wintringham then looks for a mix of more abstract characteristics – judgement, maturity, emotional intelligence.

Public-service leadership is not about (financial) returns, growth in market share and other measures that apply in a competitive environment. It is, according to Wintringham, about achieving results for New Zealanders in a way that maintains trust in the institutions and Government and which complies with the law in a political environment. “This is important because politics is ultimately about the way in which societies reconcile conflicting values and aspirations.”

So effectiveness is a more important measure than efficiency in the public service?

“You’ve hit the nail there,” Wintringham enthuses.

Due process was the priority when Michael Wintringham joined the public service in 1970. Compliance with a plethora of regulations and instructions, and the custody of public resources prevailed, “but we were hopelessly inefficient”.

Then came the efficiency drive – and there was plenty of room for improvement – but so what? Governments must maintain an incorrupt and efficient state sector to get results, “and that is the hard bit”, according to Wintringham.

No agency can deliver results, or outcomes, alone, he says elaborating on his argument.

The chief executive of the Corrections Department must account for the efficient, secure and humane incarceration of 6000 or so prisoners. But if the objective is the reduction of re-offending, then the Ministry of Work and Income must provide post-release support for prisoners, and Child Youth and Family becomes involved with people from families under pressure, voluntary agencies and others.

“If we are working for results, we have to work together,” Wintringham explains.

But results take time to come through and it can be hard to stay the course, particularly in an environment where politicians and the media look for quick results.

Finally, says Wintringham, managers must try new things and sometimes they fail. Alas, we live in a world which is intolerant of failure. “So as soon as you aim for results, a raft of other things follow, and that’s the nub of modern leadership in the public service.”

He regards the quality of our public service chief executives at least as good as their colleagues through the OECD. “But sometimes,” and he chooses his words carefully, “sometimes we come short at the very top level. That’s a function of the state sector’s size and ability to invest [in people]. I also struggle to find people with a combination of skills to lead and manage an organisation, sometimes through a period of change, coupled with the ability to provide technical or specialist leadership.”

The trend to small agencies and the lack of a systematic development of senior people has prevented the public service from equipping managers with necessary technical skills, breadth of experience, and the formal experience to be both technical advisers and leaders and leaders and managers. “And that’s the challenge,” according to Wintringham.

Aside the shortage of technically capable managers, the influences that impact most on public sector management practice are the same as those that influence the private sector: demographic change, international economic trends affecting New Zealand’s comparative performance and place in the world and international events, says Wintringham.

Public-service managers must understand the trends and the way in which governments respond to them. It is, to his mind, a bigger job than simply administering regulations or operating efficiently in a small self-contained organisation.

Of the future and the issues likely to affect public-service management Wintringham immediately identifies the need to operate in a more public and pressured environment. “You can’t assume that people are well equipped to be thrown in at the deep end,” he explains.

The state sector will need people who can operate in the public service as a whole, working across agencies and across the boundary between state sector services and voluntary agencies. It won’t be sufficient to be a good technical manager of their own organisations.

And if New Zealand aspires to return to the top half of the OECD, the public service must make a contribution. It must produce innovative approaches to cracking some very long-term social and economic problems.

“New Zealand is in something of a golden age,” suggests Wintringham. “It has had good economic growth for an extended period and has weathered most of the international storms.”

But, he warns, entrenched long-term social alienation persists in some parts of our society, unfortunately linked to ethnicity.

“If the golden age comes to an end and we have still got to deal with [ethnic issues] we will have problems as a society. I am not scaremongering. I am trying to express a sense of urgency. In a world where people are upwardly mobile, where skills are more marketable, we have to deal with our own issues and I don’t think we have much time.”


Born in Blenheim
Educated at St Johns College in Hastings.

Began public service career in the Treasury.

Economic counsellor, New Zealand Embassy in Washington.

Joined Hay Management Consultants.

Joined the Prime Minister’s Department.

Appointed assistant auditor-general.

Appointed chief executive of the Housing Ministry.

Appointed State Services Commissioner; reappointed for two more years in 2002.

Bob Edlin is Management’s regular economics writer.

© Copyright NZ Management magazine March 2003

All material appearing is copyright and cannot be reproduced without prior permission of the publisher.

Please contact the copyright officer: Ph 0-9-529 3000, Email