Restoring the Ministry of Works may be the answer to recovery challenges when the lock-down is lifted

Based on the experience of Kiwibuild, wiseacres chortle at the prospect of another Ministry of Works to design and build New Zealand infrastructure from highways and motorways to airports, power stations and railways.

The prospect was raised in a Newsroom report which said:

Ministers are rushing to prevent the country’s construction sector hollowing out under coronavirus lockdown. 

However, they’ve also admitted the state’s role in construction will massively expand in a way unheard of in several generations. That could include turning Crown Infrastructure Partners into a new Ministry of Works-style government department.


Answering questions on whether the Ministry of Works would be revived at the end of the country’s Covid-19 recovery Twyford said he “wouldn’t want to rule out that more hands-on approach”, and Jones said he was strongly in favour of it.

The quotes came from Transport Minister Phil Twyford (previously associated with a failure to meet Kiwibuild targets)  and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones (who will be judged, among other things, on his success in meeting the billion  trees target).

Before the idea of a new Ministry of Works is judged on the strength of those ministers’ connection with it, let’s reflect on how it actually operated.

At the top was a Commissioner of Works, a civil engineer, who was among the top echelons of the public service. It was a prized position and the holder exercised enormous influence.

Reporting to him were District Commissioners of Works, based across the country. Each controlled regions known as Residencies led by a Resident Engineer.  Each residency had its share of assistant engineers, surveyors, drafting rooms and lawyers.

The point was that the top levels of the system were engineers rather than “managers”.

Administrative officers directed an army of clerks in a pre-IT world who crunched the numbers, paid the bills and wages, and kept the system ticking over.  Across the system was a certain esprit de corps, from the commissioner to the ganger working the roads, that they were contributing to the national good.

At head office, in Wellington rather than Auckland, were several divisions covering roading, hyro-electric construction, airport construction and so on.   Within each residency were mechanical workshops to maintain plant and depots scattered around the country, each responsible for a section of highway.

Shane Jones would have loved these, because they provided employment in areas with little or no economic activity other than keeping the roads open and in good repair in all weathers.

By and large these depots took great pride in their stretch of tarmac. They also created little social and community structures.

Planning and shaping the highway network began with the National Roads Board, comprising engineers and local body representatives, who met regularly and argued the merits of each proposal.

Its intention was to provide a balanced view across the country, so that Auckland, for example, didn’t always claim all the work.

By the late 1970s the system was under attack from ministers such as Derek Quigley, who argued that all this sort of work was better done by the private sector.

This was somewhat disingenuous because the MoW already made extensive use of the contracting industry via “plant hire”.  This allowed the industry to specialise with large and expensive equipment – and spared the MoW’s capital expenditure.

The reforms of the mid and late 80s spelled the end of the ministry and the arrival of the New Zealand Transport Agency, which manages the design and construction carried out  by the private sector and runs day-to-day operations.

So what of the future?

The MoW began as the Public Works Department by Act of Parliament in 1876.  Its principle task was to build the infrastructure for a new country.

Until 1880 it ran the railways.

It is evident New Zealand will have a new economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and as former prime minister Sir Bill English pointed out the other day, this means some parties in government will need to swallow hard and accept policies otherwise unacceptable.

This means new or improved infrastructure, job creation, approached from a national perspective to provide a balance among the regions.  A new Ministry of Works might be the answer.



8 thoughts on “Restoring the Ministry of Works may be the answer to recovery challenges when the lock-down is lifted

  1. Who would be the new Minister of Works? Clearly, both Twyford and Jones are unsuitable. Twyford has given new meaning to the word inept with everything he touches failing. Jones is all bluster, an ineffectual blowhard.


  2. My anecdote is removing the last winter worker in Gisborne in the mid-1990’s. Winter workers were workers taken on temporarily by the MoW or Railways Dept by the Muldoon Govt in the late 1970’s as a way of soaking up unemployed and reducing the unemployment figures. Bloating these departments as these workers never left. We were restructuring the rail freight operation in Gisborne (the line never recovered from Cyclone Bola) and his time had come. He probably got 18 years work from that temporary job offer!


  3. As an ex MWD worker from 1965 to redundancy in 1988, I applaud the specifics of the above article. The MWD acted for all government departments as investigator, designer, contract production and supervision. The Thorndon flyover is a good example of leading edge design by the MWD. Unfortunalely when Rogernomics disbanded it and other depts. there was gap in quality design and building supervision, you will remember Cave Creek as an example of such works falling between two stools, The Doc funded public lookout was not designed by MWD or constructed under their supervision, I contend that if it had been, then there would have been no accident nor loss of life. There have been similar relaxations of standards since and ‘leaky homes’ is but one example, albeit a large one. In those days there was a balanced consortium of public and private engineering endeavour. I consider ti to be time to return to that balance. Michael Dymond.


  4. MoW also ran NZ Electricity up to about 1957 and was responsible for a lot of the major decisions there that still show their worth today.There were a lot of very good engineers and they had a comprehensive training programme to keep churning them out. The last of them is near retirement age unfortunately.
    The problem with the MoW or MWD was always that they were a government Department and very much under the influence of Ministers. That is why they did a lot of things that didn’t make sense or weren’t going to work. What the government members are talking about is going back to the bad ways. There is nothing wrong with the principle.of a state Works department. However, it has to be something like an SOE with an independent board. Anything else is doomed to failure.


  5. Back to the days of those magnificent hydro electric power projects. MOW assisted by the Italians. Engineering excellence. Let’s do it. Sir Roger won’t like this, but we can ignore him


  6. What are the odds of engineers being allowed to run such a Ministry now? Experts in political management, in communication, in safety, yes, but people who know how to get things done, no chance.


  7. Asgaard
    The hydro scheme in the Central North Island, including the tunnels, was only given the go-ahead to proceed to keep the NI dam workforce employed until they could start building dams on the Mohaka. And there was a lot of opposition from the unions to getting the Italian tunnelers in as well. All facts conveniently swept under the carpet.


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