Chief Executive's Overview
Over the past year the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has had a particular requirement to deliver on its fundamental responsibilities. First and foremost, we were required to provide support to the incoming Prime Minister and his new Government following their election to office in the general election held on 8 November 2008. This activity contributed to achieving one of the department's five core outcomes – "Executive government is well conducted and continues in accordance with accepted conventions and practices".
Our principal purpose following the election was to support and advise the Prime Minister as he formed his Government, and then to help members of the new Ministry settle into their roles as quickly and effectively as possible. Secondly, in our policy advisory role, we took an early lead in providing advice to the new Government on the execution of its programme and (with other agencies such as the Treasury) in advising the Prime Minister on the global economic crisis. The coincidence of the meltdown on the New York financial markets and New Zealand's general election meant that the new ministers faced unexpected circumstances on assuming office. With the Treasury and the State Services Commission (SSC), DPMC had to lift its performance to assist ministers in dealing with the pressing new situation they faced – characterised in particular by rapidly declining fiscal revenues, rising unemployment, and pressures on public services. That advisory role continues.
Our 2008 Statement of Intent noted that DPMC has an ongoing requirement to be responsive to changing circumstances yet also understand longer-term policy challenges. We also have a responsibility, with our central agency colleagues, to improve the performance of the state sector as a whole, focusing on coherence, service delivery and value for money. These aspects of the department's role have come into sharp focus over the last year as a result of the economic crisis and its fiscal impacts on New Zealand, and also because of the advent of the new Government and its new policy priorities.
One of the first tasks the department undertook after the swearing-in of the new Government was to coordinate work by departments in support of the 100 Day Action Plan. The Plan included a wide range of initiatives and urgent actions in areas such as public health, the economy and taxation, law and order, education, and electoral law. DPMC convened a working group of chief executives whose agencies provided relevant policy advice and drafted the necessary legislation for introduction in the House of Representatives. All elements of the Government's Plan were delivered on time.
The department also supported and coordinated preparations for the Prime Minister's Summit on Employment, which was held in Manukau City on 27 February 2009; and in this we worked closely with the Summit's Chair Mark Weldon, the private sector leaders of the various workstreams, and contributing departments. The Summit produced a substantial list of initiatives and recommendations – such as the National Cycleway, the Nine Day Fortnight, and an Expanded Home Insulation Scheme – for subsequent government action or consideration.
Other policy areas where the department has been actively engaged include climate change and emissions trading (such as leading an ongoing policy dialogue with the Department of Climate Change in Canberra on exploring the scope for aligning Australia's and New Zealand's emissions trading schemes), freshwater management, Treaty of Waitangi settlements, youth support and education policies, and a review of business assistance.
Early in the term of the new Government, final contract decisions were taken on the Government House Conservation Project. A local Wellington contractor, L T McGuinness Ltd, commenced work on the site early in the New Year. Work is proceeding well, and is on schedule. The scope of the originally agreed project was trimmed somewhat as a result of the search for budget savings in the Government's line-by-line review; but the core of the project – restoration of the main house – has been retained in full.
As part of the preparations for commencement of the Conservation Project, a suite of refurbished offices for Their Excellencies and key support staff was created in the Islington Office, in the grounds of Government House. Full support services have been maintained through the transition phase. Vogel House in Lower Hutt was also prepared for use as the alternate Official Residence in Wellington, and Their Excellencies took up residence at Vogel House in February.
The move from Government House Wellington as a result of the Conservation Project necessitated a major restructuring of the Governor-General's programme, with a greater focus on Auckland and regional activities and an increased use of alternative venues for major ceremonial and constitutional events. Despite this major restructuring, Their Excellencies' programme was full and varied. It included regional visits to Northland, the west Coast, Canterbury, and the Chatham Islands; and in addition the Governor-General and Lady Satyanand undertook state visits to Tonga, China, Mongolia, India, and Turkey – the highlight of which included representing New Zealand at the annual Gallipoli commemoration at ANZAC Cove. The Governor-General's programme also saw a wide range of activities in support of the more than 150 community organisations for which Their Excellencies are patrons. A further highlight was the launch of a new website for the Governor-General, which has been very well received.
In March the Prime Minister announced that titular honours would be reinstated as part of the New Zealand Order of Merit. The Cabinet Office provided technical advice on that issue and implemented the decision in time for the Queen's Birthday Honours List, as well as providing the option for those who had received PCNZMs and DCNZMs since 2000 to be redesignated as knights and dames.
The Domestic and External Security Group had a very full work programme over the past year, coordinating a range of cross-government activities to bolster security and enhance resilience. Fortunately, there were no major emergencies or natural calamities. The advent of a serious swine flu epidemic in late April, however, showed very clearly how important was the work that the Ministry of Health had led four years earlier (within the Officials' Domestic and External Security Group system) to develop an Influenza Pandemic Action Plan. Following detection of swine flu in New Zealand a range of national, border, and district health board responses – including critical public messages – were taken in rapid succession. Together these responses allowed the New Zealand health authorities to stem the reach and speed of the influenza pandemic in a manner that would not have been possible without the earlier work and associated exercises. The pandemic has demonstrated very clearly the value of in-depth preparation for known public-security risks.
Just prior to the election, the department also played a role in coordinating the preparation of a package of initiatives to commemorate the life of Sir Edmund Hillary. These included inauguration of the Hillary Shield for rugby test matches between New Zealand and England, and a Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship for India and Nepal.
It has been a privilege to lead this small department over the past year. The manner in which staff have continued to acquit themselves has been impressive – in particular during the critical period of the general election and formation of the incoming Government. The outgoing Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, personally expressed her thanks to departmental staff past and present when she left office, noting the high standards of service she had received during her nine years in office, the professionalism of the staff, and the strong ethic of public service and political impartiality within the department. I am very grateful for the support I continue to receive from all staff, in particular my senior management colleagues: they continue to carry heavy responsibilities and workloads, but with a positive spirit of service.
Maarten Wevers CNZM