Public service

No more work or uncontrollable bureaucracy: Labour’s booming civil service

Core government civil service numbers have risen by more than 28% since Labor took office, as the size of departments swells across the country.

Between 2017 and 2021, the number of basic civil servants (excluding the Office of Government Communications Security and the Security Intelligence Service, which do not publish figures) increased from 48,000 to nearly 62,000 – the result of the government’s efforts to revitalize the public sector.

The figures were obtained from publicly available data on the Public Service Commission’s website. A breakdown of staff types was taken from annual departmental reviews.

Oranga Tamariki’s membership grew from 3,424 to 5,118, a jump of 49%. Statistics New Zealand’s workforce increased from 976 to 1,410, an increase of 44%, while MBIE increased from 3,450 to 5,301, an increase of 53%.

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The Ministry of Health grew from 1097 to 1680, growth which mainly occurred during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Department of Social Development grew from 6,921 to 9,313. The Department of Environment almost doubled the number of people it employed. Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency employs over 100 people in human resources.

The government argues that this compensates for the shortage of civil servants under the previous national government, which instead of relying on staff contracted out services. National says it’s a sign of poor fiscal and civil service discipline.

“I think it’s absolutely out of control and the bureaucracy has exploded massively under this government,” said Simeon Brown, National’s civil service spokesman.

There has been a strong growth in civil servants since 2017.

Adobe Stock/Elements

There has been a strong growth in civil servants since 2017.

“I think what New Zealanders are seeing is more people working in public services, but they don’t see the real benefit in terms of better outcomes in terms of the services they need, whether that’s health, education, law and order that goes backwards.”

Over the 2017-2021 period, the overall contractor bill for departments barely increased from $896 million to $902 million per year. However, that bill dropped by $22 million between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

However, the consultancy bill for Crown agencies, organizations such as Waka Kotahi, ACC and Fire and Emergency New Zealand, has soared since 2017, from $308m to $402m in 2020-21 . However, that bill also dropped significantly, by $80 million between 2019-20 and 2020-21 – the latest year of numbers.

Civil Service Minister Chris Hipkins said the biggest increases were in areas with frontline staff and the government had rebuilt capacity in the sector. He also pointed out that the numbers would likely level off as a wave of Covid-related employees leave the system.

“I think if you look at the New Zealand civil service as a proportion of overall gross domestic product, in fact we still have a very lean, mean and efficient civil service,” he said.

“The UK and Australia would spend more money on their public services than we do.”

He cited education, where enrollment grew from 2,998 to 4,296 – a 43% increase – as an example of good investment. The ministry was now managing more assets, building schools, and providing more support staff.

Meanwhile, a survey of annual departmental reviews shows that communications staff – a pet peeve of the opposition and many voters – have also risen significantly in the civil service, from 158 to 497 – an increase of 47%.

Minister Chris Hipkins says the public service is


Minister Chris Hipkins says the public service is “very lean, mean and efficient”.

Across all Crown agencies, the number increased by 43% to 309. Combined, there are over 800 communications employees across departments and Crown agencies, an increase of over 250, or 45 %, since 2017.

Hipkins defended the increases saying that, contrary to belief in some quarters, the number of communications employees dealing with the media was relatively unchanged. Ways of communicating with the public have changed, he said.

“People are always obsessed with communications staff and they think communications staff are people trying to work with the media. In fact, in reality, the number of people doing this work has stayed about the same – any increase in communications has been in direct citizen engagement.

Not all departments have increased their workforces – Inland Revenue has grown from 5,519 to 4,210 workers (which Hipkins calls a smart use of an IT overhaul) – but there has been considerable growth across the system .

Across the sector, annual reports show that there are approximately 33% more managers and over 40% more clerical and administrative staff.

After decades of deconcentration, intellectual currents have changed: some services are being moved to be run again in Wellington, remodeled, reformed and expanded. Labor is trying to undertake many reforms. And the machinery of government needs people who can help do that.

“I think the challenge is that when you rebuild a base capacity, you don’t see instant results from that. So it’s a longer-term process,” Hipkins said.

“So what should we see in the next few years? Well, we should see more things in-house rather than using consultants and contractors.

The crux of National’s criticism of the government is that it would do less and, if it did the same amount, it would be able to do it with fewer people and a lower overall level of spending.

The government's core civil service has grown by more than 28% since Labor came to power.


The government’s core civil service has grown by more than 28% since Labor came to power.

Brown said the rising costs and increased staff did not match actual service delivery.

“If we’re looking at literacy rates, you’re looking at crime, we’re looking at potholes on our roads, you’re actually looking at the outcomes that people are concerned about…everything they [the public] the number of people working in the departments is increasing, but what they are ultimately getting is shrinking and getting worse. »

In Brown’s other shadow portfolio, transportation, he points to the massive increase in the number of human resource professionals in Waka Kotahi. According to a response from Transport Minister Michael Wood to parliamentary written questions to Brown, there are now 118 people employed in human resources at the agency, up from just over 50 in 2018.

That figure included a range of people not typically included in traditional HR functions, the agency said, such as health and safety (13), the Emerging Professionals Program (25) and Covid response team (2).

With the removal of those teams, the number of full-time equivalent employees was 85, he said.

Waka Kotahi also said the growth had been to support the additional work of government projects such as the New Zealand Upgrade Programme, the Road to Zero campaign and climate change requirements.

The agency also has 90 full-time communications staff, up from 32 in 2017-18, according to figures provided during a select committee hearing.

This compared to the 19 communications and media staff working in the Department of Health at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.