20 Mar 2018

MBIE re-hires former chief exec on contract

8:58 am on 20 March 2018

A ministry that's under fire for spending a lot on contractors has just re-hired its chief executive from last year, as a contractor.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

David Smol finished up in the top job at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment nine months ago.

Now he's back on a five-week contract to help set up the government's new Provincial Growth Fund.

"David Smol has been engaged on a short term contract to assist in the next phase of our planning and set-up work to enable us to scale up and quickly hit the ground running," Nigel Bickle, the ministry's head of Regional Economic Development, said.

"David has vast experience and expertise in economic development, investment planning and delivery and will be supporting this next phase for five weeks, up to three days a week."

MBIE Chief Executive, David Smol

David Smol finished as MBIE's chief executive nine months ago, but now he's back on a five week contract. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The ministry said late last year it would significantly cut back on using contractors after its spending on them jumped at least 60 percent in the last four years.

It said it now had 70 fewer contractors than in October 2017, "and we are looking to reduce numbers further where we can".

The highest-paid contractors at the ministry are on $200-$300 an hour.

It is not known what Mr Smol is on.

He declined to talk to RNZ.

The Provincial Growth Fund has been the subject of recent controversy after RNZ reported that one project it was backing was headed by a businessman under scrutiny from the Serious Fraud Office.

During Mr Smol's tenure as the inaugural chief executive at the super-ministry, the spending on contractors and consultants rose from $46 million in 2012/13 to at least $73.7m last year.

However, that total could be as high as $95m depending how the latest figures are added up (once $15m classed as capital spending on contract IT labour and $6.8m spent on temporary staff are included).

The ministry has come under pressure since a spreadsheet was leaked to the media last December which appeared to show it had been under-reporting its spending on contractors and consultants.

It has since changed how it reports back to MPs, "for additional clarity".

"This year the Ministry has reviewed the way in which it reports expenditure on contractors and consultants to select committee. In previous years, the Ministry's response to this particular question has not included costs relating to ongoing or completed ICT projects," it said.

The ministry is due to report to Economic Development Minister David Parker this month about reductions in its use of contractors.

"With my agreement the current chief executive is decreasing the reliance on consultants," Mr Parker said in a statement.

"But from time to time they are still needed. This is one of those occasions."

RNZ asked if the ministry's approach was eroding its own capacity, for instance staffing problems have included a recent vacancy rate of 40 percent in its newly expanded building branch.

"MBIE does use contractors and consultants in a number of different ways," Mr Bickle replied, "including for short-term demand, where specialist skills or independent external advice are needed, and in periods of peak demand."

He would not give an interview now but said he would once his team had been assembled.

It was not clear if Mr Smol's new job was one that a regular staffer could have done, the Public Service Association's national secretary Glenn Barclay said.

He blamed the cap on core public sector staff numbers imposed by the last government, adding the Labour-led government had made the right noises about lifting the cap but had not so far done that.

"As far as we're aware that cap is still in place and it's driven a lot of bad behaviour by ... departments to try to figure out ways around it."

The moves at the ministry to cut back were in the right direction but it had a long, long way to go, while its clarification around reporting helped, he said.

"It does look like progress. It's certainly a lot of money ... that's money that could be used to either increasing staffing or giving our members decent pay increases which they've been waiting around a long time for."

Public sector wage growth since 20012 has averaged below 2 percent a year.

The official cap on the core public service is 36,475 although this excludes thousands who could be counted as public servants, including some so-called "front line" staff.

The business ministry's employee numbers have been rising, from 2800 in 2013 to 3500.

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