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MAX SALMON: Too complex


How complex is too complex? My new report for the New Zealand Initiative, Cabinet Congestion: The Growth of a Ministerial Maze, poses this question with respect to the executive branch of New Zealand’s Government.


New Zealand’s executive is incredibly powerful. Its members control the levers of state power through its departments and agencies. Everything from healthcare to roads, education to foreign policy, is within its purview.


Importantly, the Ministers who control the executive branch are the leading MPs of the parties that form the Government. These Ministers then control policy creation and law creation.


Even a cursory look at the layout of the executive raises questions about complexity. The executive branch comprises 41 government departments and 27 Crown agencies. These organisations answer to a combined 78 Ministerial portfolios and a further 22 associate portfolios, held by 28 Ministers.


With most Ministers holding at least two portfolios and around half of all departments serving multiple portfolios, a chaotic spiderweb of responsibility emerges.


Zooming in, the level of complexity becomes clearer still.


Departments are frequently split between multiple Ministers. For example, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)­ answers to no less than 16 ministers­.


Policy areas such as environment and construction are split across multiple departments. For instance, environmental policy is split across the Ministries for Transport, Primary Industries, Environment, Internal Affairs, and other Crown agencies like the Environmental Protection Authority.


Ministers often hold unrelated portfolios. Casey Costello holds seniors and customs portfolios, and associate portfolios in police, health, and immigration. Judith Collins has no less than seven portfolios.


The complexity of our system makes us an outlier among parliamentary democracies with populations similar to ours. Compared with the combined average of Denmark, Singapore, Norway, Ireland and Finland, we have 50% more Ministers, 156% more departments, and 280% more portfolios.


Our Ministers are frequently spread too thin, leaving them ill-equipped to undertake serious reform. The fragmented lines of reporting resulting from so many agencies reporting to multiple Ministers pose coordination, accountability, and resourcing problems. Important portfolios such as Environment and Tertiary Education often end up on the Executive’s periphery.


All Kiwis suffer when the Executive is not efficient or effective. We must consider what can be done to simplify our government so that it delivers the best for New Zealand.


The report recommends several initial solutions:


-Portfolios and departments should be strictly streamlined, reducing numbers, and focusing attention on sectors.

-Implementation of official coordination structures for ministers involved in overlapping sectors.

-Introducing a limited number of ministers who are not members of parliament.


Max Salmon is a Research Fellow with the New Zealand Initiative. You can read Max's Research Note here.

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76 Comments


Of course it is complex. How else to you create a system where it is nigh on impossible to apportion blame? Welcome to the over inflated populist belief that democracy is a great form of government. Of course we must remember that all other forms of government provide an even lesser accountability. Not much choice really is it?

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Yes precisely, Zeke, Charley, Lynsam etc, who commented earlier in the string.


And yet amongst all of this nonsense, Kiwi voters in the last election were not the slightest bit interested in an FTT 1% tax that would have massively increased the disposable incomes of 99% of society. The only losers from this reform would be the thieving global banking plutocrats and parasitic financial casino gamblers.


As a nation, we have almost zero interest in transitioning into public banking reform that could make us the most wealthy thriving countries in the world within 3 years. The combination of both FTT and the PBS (Public Banking Solution) would solve 95% of our socioeconomic problems, and yet there is almost zero public…



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There is no doubt our government system is hugely complex - but is it then not better and more advantageous that departments are split between several ministers?? And that several ministers are responsible for the same portfolio??


One must presume that that ministers selected for the various portfolios share a personal interest in the subjects of the portfolios on hand - and that, being from parties with similar political attitudes, they will be able (and naturally expected) to support and assist each other in every way.


The more ministerial grey matter we can get working on our manifold and complex problems the better.


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The whole of New Zealand is vastly over-governed. We have a population less than Sydney and have something like 76 local councils, a dozen or more regional councils and central Government with 123 Members. And guess who is paying for this massive over-supply? Yep -- us suckers.


Remember the referendum on the number of seats in Parliament? Overwhelmingly supporting a reduction back to 99 (I preferred back to 80 which was sufficient to get things done in the bad old days). Of course, it was ignored by the Molesworth Street turkeys who were never going to vote for an early Christmas.


Most of the Miseries are set up to appease any wanker who has a bleat about something. "Wha…


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Unfortunately, Self Interest is the greatest driver of all human endeavour in history & all this rubbish is about SELF INTEREST but at the expense of others ie. us, the muggins.

We need very small govt to carry out the basics & support the unfortunates & then …… let us all go.

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