This article examines the new approach to specifying and assessing the performance of departmental chief executives in New Zealand introduced in 1988 by the fourth Labour government (1984–1990). Drawing on the findings of a series of interviews with ministers, chief executives and other senior public servants conducted between late 1989 and late 1991 by a number of researchers, the article outlines the origins and implementation of the new policy framework, and evaluates its strengths and weaknesses. From the evidence available to date, it appears that the new model has won the support of most of the parties directly affected, and that it has enhanced the accountability of chief executives to their portfolio minister(s). However, the implementation of the new regime has highlighted the inherent problems of assessing the performance of senior personnel in the public sector and of imposing sanctions in the event of substandard performance. In addition, various issues of a constitutional nature have arisen concerning the roles and responsibilities of chief executives, the balance of power between chief executives and their portfolio minister(s), and the proper role of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the new accountability framework.