POLITICS : Make Small Great, Not Beautiful

Small is not necessarily beautiful. Maybe E F Schumacher was wrong back in 1973.
Sure, New Zealand looks beautiful. Tourists come in millions to stare at the beauty, especially in the South Island. But the beauty they come for is in the landscape, not the smallness.
In fact, tune in to the agonising of politicians, economists and social commentators and smallness sounds like handicap. Moreover, distance from the big places makes New Zealand look and feel even smaller – as if it is viewed through the wrong end of telescope.
Often this is compensated for by overexertion. We tell ourselves we “punch above our weight”. In some ways that is true: high Olympic medal count per capita; prime minister highly regarded by heads of governments of countries with 20 or 100 times our population; an impressive per capita patent count.
But we are small. Hop across the Tasman and discover just how small. The Australian media’s radar picks up about as much of this country as they do of Papua New Guinea.
How to manage this invisibility is constant challenge for politicians.
They might do worse than look inside their own bureaucracy.
The 1988 reforms took ‘small is beautiful’ into new territory. They fragmented big departments by function: policy, regulation, funding, delivery. The Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Justice fell below critical mass. The disassembled bits developed their own policy units in competition.
And micro-ministries were created. Among them was the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Its brief was to scan policy for its impact on women and to push for women’s needs and aspirations to be integrated into policy – much as the Treasury monitors for fiscal implications.
In opposition, National mused on abolishing it. John Key, however, wants to woo women, especially liberal women who would be displeased by abolition. The ministry has had stay of execution.
But it remains small, with just 35 full-time-equivalent staff, small $41.3 million budget – and wide scope, including international work. How does it keep up morale in the jungle inhabited by big agencies like the Treasury, the Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Social Development?
Shenagh Gleisner came in as chief executive from KPMG via the State Services Commission in 2004. She is one of the better-regarded public sector CEOs: when Child, Youth and Family was leaderless in 2006, she was drafted in to hold the fort.
Back in April, Gleisner described to public sector professionals how she manages smallness. The country’s managers might pick up some of her cues.
She reframed “small” as “agile”, “catalyst”, “collaborator” with others (to bulk up) and “strategic”, so as not to waste resources.
She aimed at high-quality, responsive, helpful, reliable and focused “persona”, so that other agencies might value input and advice from, or association with, her ministry.
She set out to empower all staff, to get the most from all. She prioritised so that what the ministry did, it did the best it could.
Sound familiar? Small businesses would say so. So would those running small overseas posts or representing the country with tiny team at international negotiations, such as on climate change. The whole country is small business.
The parallel reaches further. Gleisner’s ministry is stand-alone, so has to do all the corporate administration big agency must. small country has to cover all the treasury, taxing, infrastructure, policy thinking and administrative bases big country must.
Gleisner has to contend with bigger departments raiding her staff with ‘unrefusable’ offers. New Zealand has to contend with much richer Australia raiding its talent base.
So “it’s very hard being small”, Gleisner said.
You’d think she would therefore want big department now, fast. Actually, she insists she is happy where she is – and from that platform leads some interdepartmental work.
Where she is, Gleisner has autonomy. To maximise resources, she collaborates with other agencies. Her small team can be efficient and flexible. Staff can have wider range of opportunities than in big agency where staff specialise in narrower frames.
Likewise, talented people who decide to stay in New Zealand have wider scope of opportunities than in more stratified and specialised big societies.
Autonomy, collaboration, efficiency, flexibility and opportunity can all be done punching at our weight, not above it. Gleisner has figured that out. The country’s managers could, too. Small is not, after all, beautiful. But, as Gleisner said, small can be great.

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and Management’s regular political columnist.

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