New Zealand’s top public servant, State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, is calling for the restoration of a spirit of service within the public service which he says, in many ways, has lost its heart.
But he wants that spirit exercised within a disciplined politically neutral public service.
And so he has set out the rules he expects public servants to abide by when they deal with the new Government.
He has emphasised the need for them to maintain their political neutrality while they provide the Government with free and frank advice.
His comments, coming soon after the establishment of the Labour-led coalition, are a reminder to it of what political neutrality means for the public service and he has particular warnings for politically appointed political advisors.
(Political advisors are politically appointed staff, often political party activists, who work in Minister’s officers.)
What he said in his speech in Sydney to the Australia and New Zealand School of Government fortnight ago goes to the heart of the relationship between politicians and their public servant advisors.
“Political neutrality is, I think, the absolute bottom line to assuring an enduring career public service in the Westminster tradition,” he said.
“But, it’s something that is under pressure in various ways in most jurisdictions.
“So, for me, there is a line.
“Politicians respect public servants who go down to the line, but not over it. “
He said politicians put themselves “out there” every day.
“But, they don’t respect public servants who stay closeted in an ivory tower of neutrality or independence, who take no risks, who sit on the hill looking down on the line lobbing their advice over it, shrugging their shoulders and washing their hands of accountability.”
“The key for me, is to engage actively with the political context without becoming part of it.”
He said that there were often forces trying to pull public servants over the line.
“Political advisors can be one of those.
“It’s a role that, in my view, needs to be positioned in a constitutional sense, otherwise it is a risk to us.
“We need political advisors to understand and own the line.
“We need them to understand and own the role of the public service.”
There is often a significant tension between the political advisor in a Minister’s office and the public servants in the department or Ministry.
In a study, conducted last year. Chris Eichbaum, a Reader in Government at the School of Government, at Victoria University, found that more than half of the 640 public servants he surveyed believed that public servants were less likely to provide a minister with comprehensive and free and frank advice.
Political advisors were seen as one of the key inhibiting factors in obstructing that advice.
Nevertheless, Hughes supports their role.
“This is a real job, doing real work.
“It’s important, and we cannot retreat into the past.
“But, political advisors working in the right way, working with the administrators in the public service in the right way, are a guarantee of political neutrality, more than they are a threat to it.”
The Cabinet Manual says that Political Advisors have a specific exemption from the political neutrality requirement, otherwise they are subject to the same standards of integrity and conduct as other state servants.
And he went on to define what he considered to be free and frank advice to a Minister.
“Free and frank advice, in my book, is not about the bold and fearless public servant facing down the Minister, as characterised by some people,” he said.
“It is not a license to be obstructive to the Government’s objectives or a Minister’s policy position.
“The intended outcome of free and frank advice is better results and better services for our country.
“Not officials advancing their own agenda or looking to demonstrate fearless independence for its own sake.
“The convention of giving free and frank advice is designed to support Ministers to achieve their objectives. “
Hughes has written rules about what free and frank advice means into both the new Cabinet Manual and departmental CEO’s employment contracts.
He says it must be “honest and impartial” and include all relevant information and “it must also be responsive to the priorities determined by the Government of the day.”
His comments come at a sensitive time; any new Government is suspicious of the public servants who worked for its predecessor.
New Zealand First Ministers with their overall suspicion of Wellington have so far been the most upfront in expressing their reservations about the public service.
But there are also bigger issues at stake.
State Services Minister, Chris Hipkins, has said he wants to review and rewrite the State Sector Act.
He has some far-reaching proposals to merge and have work together more Government departments.
He may find some sympathy from Hughes over this.
In his speech, the Commissioner also talked about the impact of the 1990’s state sector reforms.
“I was a huge advocate of these reforms, and I still am.
“But, one of the things that happened with the reforms in New Zealand, is that we shifted our focus away from the public service, as a whole, on to our own individual agencies.
“I do think we lost a sense of being part of something bigger, with a higher purpose, with a moral purpose, and in many ways, I think, we lost our heart.”
And so he wants to see the restoration of what he calls a spirit of service within the public sector — but at the same time that spirit will be exercised within strict rules defining the line between public servants and politicians.