Team overview of Parliamentary Counsel Office

Can you give us an overview of the Parliamentary Counsel Office and the work it supports?

The Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) is New Zealand’s law drafting and publication office, and the government’s legislative advisor. We are responsible for:

  • drafting New Zealand Government Bills (except Inland Revenue Bills) and much of New Zealand’s secondary legislation
  • publishing all New Zealand Bills and Acts, and the secondary legislation that we draft.

Our objective (under the Legislation Act 2019) is to promote high-quality legislation that is easy to find, use, and understand and, to that end, to exercise stewardship of New Zealand’s legislation as a whole. Our shorthand way of describing our goal is “Great law for New Zealand”, meaning law that is accessible, fit for purpose, and constitutionally sound. Many of the people at PCO have those words printed on colourful magnets that are stuck up on the wall in their offices – we really are behind it as a team.

The office is divided into four groups – there’s the Drafting Group, which consists of about 35 or 40 lawyers, who are themselves divided into four teams by subject matter expertise. Then there is Access and Digital Services, mainly comprised of our teams of highly skilled publishers and editors. There’s also System and Stewardship, which comprises our legislative stewardship team (who, amongst other things, support the Legislation Design and Advisory Committee) and our partnerships and education team. And finally, the People, Services and Delivery team, who handle the corporate side of the office and essentially make everything work on a day-to-day basis.

The ILANZ 2022 award acknowledged that the Parliamentary Counsel Office “performed under immense pressure, always collaborating, innovating, and seeking continuous improvements.” Can you tell us more about the challenges and opportunities of the last few years?

The ILANZ award in 2022 named PCO’s Drafting Group as the public sector in-house team of the year, acknowledging our work as part of the response to COVID-19. It’s something we were all very proud of – particularly given that people everywhere in government came under a lot of pressure in contributing to that response, and everyone across the different agencies had to work together to deliver a high-quality outcome.

What the award highlighted though, was that almost every public health initiative forming part of the response (going right back to the start of 2020) had to be implemented using legislation. The vast majority of the legislation was drafted by PCO, on top of its existing workload in delivering the Government’s business-as-usual legislative programme.

Much of the work was done in extraordinarily short time frames and under huge pressure – sometimes we got our instructions less than 24 hours before the relevant legislation needed to commence. As a team of lawyers who generally tend towards having a perfectionist streak, this required us to quickly adjust to new ways of working and develop some new coping strategies! On those occasions, a small group of dedicated drafters had to roll up their sleeves and work seamlessly together (with the aid of a stack of pizzas) right up until the midnight deadline.

PCO delivered all that work, but we also consistently took initiative with the process and helped to co-ordinate input from numerous other agencies so that we could meaningfully apply our expertise to the way the legislative response unfolded. At each stage of the pandemic response, we kept looking at what was being produced and whether it could be improved for users.

And – perhaps even more importantly! – we kept the wellbeing of our people at the front of our minds. Of course, there were some pretty hairy periods in there at times, but we tried our absolute best to structure the work so that the load didn’t fall disproportionately on any one person. In some cases, this meant we abandoned our usual internal structures and processes.

We learned a lot in a short space of time, and some of the lessons from that period are now leading to changes around the office on a more permanent basis.

What are the issues that keep the team awake at night and how do you plan to address these?

We hope that no issues keep the team awake at night – well-rested people tend to be a lot happier at work! But we do have a lot of challenges to face, and new ones all the time. Various emergencies over the last few years have all resulted in laws being changed or created to help address and fix problems. From COVID, the attack on Christchurch mosques, the Canterbury and Kaikōura earthquakes, to the recent severe weather events and climate change more generally, we’re living in an increasingly complex world. We want to address these issues with great law that works for the country. We are focused on ensuring we have the right amount of people, resources, and time to meet whatever might be around the next corner.

Are there any changes or new technologies the team plans to roll out in the next 12 months?

Lots! Right now, we’re building a new team to innovate both how we gather the secondary legislation that we don’t draft from the 100+ government agencies that make it and how we make all legislation available through online channels. Our Access and Digital team recently completed a proof-of-concept to aggregate legislation and turn the collected data into a demo API. This project aims to make the vast array of secondary legislation made by agencies (think rules, notices, etc) available and accessible to the people of Aotearoa | New Zealand.

Our landmark Rautaki Ao Māori | Te Ao Māori Strategy is currently being finalised, thanks to a huge effort from our Partnerships and Education team. We’re also building our capacity to use te reo Māori words and incorporate te ao Māori concepts in legislation and produce some dual-language drafting (in te reo Māori and English). So, there are many exciting developments going on for the office, and we’re excited about what’s to come – watch this space.