The legendary Wellington retailer Alan Martin of the famous L.V. Martin & Son home appliance stores was renowned for his catchphrase, “It’s the putting right that counts – and if it’s not put right, ask for me, Alan Martin”. And he was well-known for honouring that commitment. For Martin, efficient and effective after-sales service was just as important as putting a quality product on the shelves in the first place.
It is a pity this government has not followed Martin’s maxim – but then, given its worldview that nothing of relevance happened before it accidentally tumbled into office in 2017, long after Alan Martin was off the scene, it is hardly surprising. So much of what it has done has been a combination of overpromised and under-achieved, or simply poorly implemented. The one-off cost-of-living payment is but the latest example.
Faced with stinging criticism from the Auditor-General that the implementation of the scheme had prioritised speed and expediency over certainty and accuracy, the Prime Minister seem unfazed. She brushed aside the Auditor-General’s rebuke that “good stewardship of public money required greater care”, saying that because of the depth of the cost-of-living crisis, the government’s focus had been on doing something immediate to help people. She implied that was more important – even though the $350 payment was at best token – than taking the time to implement something worthwhile properly.
That has been a typical government response – being seen to be doing something quickly is more important than taking the time to do it properly. And when things go wrong, or do not work quite as intended, the fault is attributed to the way officials have implemented it, not the policy itself. After all, according to the government, the flawed Kiwibuild policy was a brilliant plan to solve the housing crisis, but it failed because officials did not implement it the way the government hoped.
So too with the cost-of-living payment. The Prime Minister and her colleagues insist there was nothing wrong with the policy, it was just that it was not implemented the way they thought. This is despite Inland Revenue and Treasury warnings at the time the policy was first suggested that it would be unworkable within the timeframe proposed and without significant additional logistical resources. Those warnings, now proven correct, were ignored because the government wanted to be seen to be “doing something” in the May Budget.
Even now, faced with criticism from the Auditor-General, blunter and far more pointed than any Auditor-General’s report of recent years, the government is still trying to sheet home the blame to Inland Revenue, and not accept any responsibility itself for what has gone wrong. Inland Revenue told the government at the outset that it would have difficulty targeting payments as precisely as intended. Yet now, when thousands of cases of people living overseas and even dead people receiving the payment have been shown up, the government is blaming Inland Revenue for the failings, even though the department pointed out the risk at the outset.
President Harry Truman – someone this government has probably never heard of – was famous for many things, amongst them his saying, “The buck stops here”. Like Alan Martin over a generation later, Truman knew where responsibility ultimately lay. Both understood that those offering a service to the public, whether in politics or in retail trade, had not only to be prepared to stand by the quality of the service they were offering, but also to accept second-best was never good enough, and that mistakes needed to be acknowledged and rectified.
That concept seems quite foreign to this government. In its world, bold ideas, no matter how unworkable or impractical, speak for themselves. When they go wrong, or do not work, it is everyone else’s fault. The problem never lies with those who dreamed up the ideas in the first place. Therefore, the “buck” or the “putting right” does not fall back on the government, but rather on those trying to make its ideas work.
Leadership is about much more than promoting pious dreams about things that would be nice to do. It is also about being willing to do the hard work to make them a feasible reality, and to listen to and accept constructive criticism along the way. And it is about accepting the ultimate responsibility for things not working as intended, not shifting the blame as far away and as quickly as possible.
The values that drove Truman’s and Martin’s approaches to serving the public now seem far away. Willingness to accept responsibility and “it’s the putting right that counts” have been replaced by policy intent being all that matters. But a government’s responsibility is greater than idealistic policy dreams – its overriding responsibility is to make sure its policies work.