Why fire engines are red, Ian Thynne

Scandal at Cave Creek: A Shocking Failure in Public Accountability
Graeme Hunt
Waddington Publications in association with the National Business Review, $24.95, ISBN 0 473 03943 5

Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Collapse of a Viewing Platform at Cave Creek Near Punakaiki on the West Coast 
G S Nobel
Department of Internal Affairs, $29.95,
ISBN 0 478 09210 5

Review of the Department of Conservation December 1995
Review Committee
State Services Commission, $24.95, no ISBN

An underlying argument of Graeme Hunt’s book is that the director-general of the Department of Conservation ought to have accepted responsibility for the Cave Creek tragedy and resigned immediately and, thus, that the subsequent resignation of the Minister of Conservation some 12 months after the tragedy was a case of the wrong person having left office. The director-general has now resigned but the official line is that it is not directly the result of the tragedy and, therefore, is not to be equated with an acknowledgement of responsibility for it.

This line essentially is that the director-general believed he had a duty to plan and see through a draft of departmental reforms in the wake of the tragedy and that, with the imminent completion of the tasks involved, the time had simply come for him to move on. But whether or not he was ultimately pushed from office remains a moot point, all the more debatable in the light of the new minister (as a member of the recently appointed coalition government) reportedly having said that he was not prepared to work with him.

The tragedy and the aftermath in terms of the findings and recommendations of a commission of inquiry and a review team appointed by the State Services Commissioner — not to mention various political and administrative machinations and manoeuvring, have brought into question the nature, extent and significance of political and administrative responsibility in the country’s reformed system of public management. The complex issues involved are largely irresoluble in any concrete sense but there can be little doubt as to the importance of their being canvassed and debated at length in the hope that responsible democratic governance is or remains a reality into and beyond the forseeable future.

Hunt seems not to grasp the fundamental point of our system of government, that it is ostensibly democratic and legitimised as such through formally established processes of political representation and ministerial control of the administrative apparatus. He does not grapple with it in an otherwise a critical and generally compelling examination “of why the tragedy was allowed to happen and why its perpetrators went unpunished”. (p1)

His aim is to address these matters rather than to provide “an account of the tragedy or of the suffering by those who survived or of the grief of relatives and friends of the victims”, (p1) though the obvious enormity of that suffering and grief is appropriately acknowledged. Chapter headings such as “Criminal culpability — what culpability?”, “Public service closes ranks”, and “The Crown plays it safe” give a good indication of the stance taken and the basic conclusions drawn as the discussion unfolds. An epilogue (pp73-9) is then used to highlight justice as “the missing ingredient” in the affair, to present a list which the government ought to do “without delay” to ensure that a similar tragedy never occurs and finally to underpin the managerialist orientation of the analysis by stressing (or is it sincerely hoping?) that “with quality management come quality systems and processes” which “just don’t let tragedies like Cave Creek happen”!

Not surprisingly, Hunt is particularly and rightly critical of the reports of the commission of inquiry and the review team. Both reports are deficient in relation to the vexed question of responsibility as manifest in the idea of someone being responsible for the tragedy or, more specifically, being held accountable for it. The various important dimensions of responsibility, including accountability, are not explored in any explicit way that might suggest that the relevant conventions and requirements are such as to inspire public confidence and faith in the operation of government at ministerial and administrative levels alike.

The commission of inquiry concluded “that no individual or particular collection of individuals was singly or jointly responsible for the Cave Creek tragedy. The root causes of the collapse lie in a combined systemic failure against the background of an underfunded and underresourced department employing (at least at grassroots level) a band of enthusiasts prepared to turn their hands to any task but who were subject to pressures not only from the overzealous anti-conservationist element but also from altered priorities. They were doing their best to meet public demands and (in this case) building structures where no proper or appropriate system of control had been designed at head office level and properly put in place and monitored at regional conservancy and thence at field centre level to ensure that the procedures were followed”. (p74)

But in all of this was not the “systemic failure” a failure of human endeavour in one form or another and, indeed, was not the commission’s finding about there being a lack of control and monitoring more than sufficient to sheet home responsibility to an “individual or particular collection of individuals”? Surely, the answer to both questions is an unequivocal “yes” and, given key features of the system of departmental management and control, the overall responsibility must have rested with both the minister and the director-general. In these circumstances, it was certainly not enough for the department simply, as an inanimate legal-structural entity, to acknowledge responsibility for major shortcomings and the tragic result, as recorded by the commission. (p74)

The review team’s discussion of responsibility in its accountability guise is likewise inadequate, again with no appropriate mention of the demands of ministerial responsibility and with nothing but praise for the director-general in support of the State Service Commissioner’s positive evaluation of his competence and performance. The team refers among other things to the issue of financial constraints which was considered by the commission of inquiry and notes that the director-general had “consistently raised with his minister the impact of such constraints on the department and the desirability of greater funding”. (p24) In this regard, but with more general application, it acknowledges that “there is some doubt as to the proper constitutional position if a chief executive is unable to meet the expected standards of performance due to funding constraints”, for “it is not clear … where the accountability would lie” here. But, unfortunately, it makes no suggestions as to how greater clarity and certainty might be achieved. It takes the easy way out by seeking refuge behind its limited terms of reference and simply recommends that the matter be researched by the State Services Commissioner. (pp24-5)

In some respects, an attempt to determine the whys and wherefores of responsibility in government can lead one to engage in the kind of wonderful reasoning found, for example, in a old anonymous poem for children, “Why fire engines are red”. It begins with 2 plus 2 being 4 and thereafter records that 3 times 4 is the length of a ruler, that Queen Mary was a ruler who ruled the seas, that fish live in the seas and have fins, that the Finns fought the Russians, that Russians are red and thus, since “fire engines are always rushin’, that’s why fire engines are red”. It is tempting to pen a corresponding piece on political and administrative responsibility in the modern era, but that would not advance our understanding of the situation and arrangements in any meaningful way.

More seriously, it is appropriate to reflect on the basic elements of two contrasting perspectives, one constitutional and the other managerial. In essence, the constitutional perspective recognises the existence of a complementary mix of political and administrative action in the operation of a department but with the minister’s leadership being apparent and felt throughout the hierarchy of authority, not that unlike the subtle blend of liquids but sting of alcohol in a well poured glass of gin and tonic. The managerial perspective, on the other hand, portrays the combination of political and administrative factors, as inherent in the respective positions, roles and contributions of the minister and departmental officials, as being broadly similar to that of oil floating on water.

In the idealised constitutional scheme of things, the responsibility for the actions or inactions of a department, including all of its successes and failures, rests with the minister, irrespective of the degree, if any, to which the minister is or was personally involved in or aware of any particular development or occurrence. The department exists as an extension of the minister’s constitutional and legal authority and there is an unbroken line of accountability from the base grade official right up through the departmental hierarchy and administrative head to the minister who is accountable to Parliament and through Parliament to the public at large. The public in turn exercises control over the minister through the electoral system and via the processes of parliamentary representation and debate and the minister asserts control over the department down through the administrative head and hierarchy.

In practice, the lines of accountability and control have long been weak for a number of reasons, including the nature of the party system and its affect on voting and electoral outcomes, the domination of Parliament by the party (or parties) from which the government is formed and the obvious limits to a minister ever being able to influence and to know about everything that is done in a department. Nevertheless, the enforcement of a minister’s responsibility, sometimes resulting in the ultimate sanction of a resignation, is something which has certainly been achieved, especially (but not always) where members of Parliament have been prepared to put and maintain considerable political pressure on a minister and the Prime Minister. On such occasions, at least some degree of faith in the democratic bases of our system must surely have been generated or restored.

Since the late 1980s, the responsibility arrangements in relation to departments have been altered quite significantly, with the “gin and tonic” concoction of constitutional theory and practice giving way to the managerialist’s “oil on water” approach to the structuring of relationships and the establishment of lines of accountability and control. Responsibility is now formally divided between the minister, who is there largely to set the political tone and policy parameters of the department, and the chief executive, who has the task of managing the department and achieving results without ministerial involvement The basic relationship is such that the minister purchases desired policy and related outputs from the chief executive who is responsible for ensuring that those outputs materialise through the actions of the department. Thus, the minister sits atop the department with no immediate responsibility for its specific activities. Indeed, through the purchasing agreement with the chief executive, the minister is able essentially to contract out of any ongoing responsibility for the way the department is managed and goes about its work.

These arrangements, which strengthen the authority of the chief executive, do not sit at all comfortably with the requirements of responsible democratic governance involving an appropriate degree of parliamentary oversight and control. The division of responsibility can easily result in its effective evasion. When or where necessary, the minister can argue that political responsibility extends only (or largely) to matters of policy, just as the chief executive can rest secure in the knowledge that there is no direct line of managerial accountability to parliament with a corresponding possibility of parliament’s securing a personal sacrifice.

So it is not surprising but no less disturbing that neither the minister nor the chief executive saw fit immediately to accept responsibility and to resign in relation to the Cave Creek tragedy. Any argument to the effect that one or both had a duty to remain in office to see that the department recovered and learnt from the tragedy is not convincing and actually is intellectually insulting because there were major deficiencies in the department’s procedures and style of operation. For very seldom is anyone so indispensable and naturally a positive outcome expected of a resignation and subsequent appointment of a new minister or chief executive is that some fresh ideas and energy will be injected into any necessary processes of departmental reconstruction.

The tragedy and the political and administrative reactions to it have raised the need for the whole framework of responsibility in government to be reassessed. Suffice at this stage to emphasise, first, that the centrality of Parliament and of parliamentary politics ought to be guaranteed. In this respect, it is to be hoped that under the new MMP arrangements a greater degree of ministerial and departmental accountability will soon eventuate.

But, second, it is necessary also to ensure that other lines of accountability are properly maintained in response to the often incompatible interests and demands of various legitimate stakeholders in the wider community. This is especially, but certainly not only, important in the case of a department such as the Department of Conservation which, as the review team records, (p14) has to cope with “conflicting pressures … notably reflecting the tension between conservation, use and development” as inherent in its wide range of functions. The responsible management of these and other significant conflicts and tensions here and elsewhere in the government requires much more than the adoption of a system, or systems, of the sort usually heralded by managerialists as having made the private sector so efficient.

At the end of the day, a gin and tonic will always be more palatable than any mixture of oil and water.

Ian Thynne lectures in politics at Waikato University

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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