Right of state servants as private citizens to participate in political activities

Develop an express and public cross-government policy formally permitting public servants to speak out on significant public issues without facing any form of retaliation.

Develop a Charter of Political Rights for all public servants that that clearly defines and promotes their right to contribute their expertise to public policy debate and political activity, balanced with their constitutional responsibilities to be politically neutral and provide free and frank advice to the government of the day.

Why the contribution is important

New Zealand’s constitutional framework includes two conventions relating to the public service which underpin open and accountable government - the provision of free and frank advice to government Ministers and political neutrality.  State servants must be apolitical when carrying out their duties, functions and powers.  It is a principle that underpins the continuing employment status of state servants and enables state servants to provide consistent services, including policy advice, for the government of the day.

However, there must be a proper balance between respect for State servants' freedoms of expression and association, and the public interest in having a politically neutral and effective state services.  As a consequence of the statutory right of state servants to join and be active in organisations, including trade unions, it is likely that there will sometimes be, within defined limits, an expression of political views inside the workplace.  State servants have the same rights of association as other members of the public; political expression and participation may be undertaken in the individual's own time.

A concerning trend is the “chilling effect” on public servants as citizens, observed since the 1980s.  The “chilling effect” discourages public servants, including scientists, academics and other professionals, from political participation as a private citizen in their own time.  For example, speaking at a public meeting, attending a public march, writing a letter to the editor, or joining a political party, trade union or civil society group.

This has come about as a result of a conservative interpretation and application of the Public Service Code of Conduct by state service employers, and recent concerted attacks on individual public servants through social media.

The risk is that New Zealand loses the plurality of knowledgeable and informed voices of public servants, critical to open and well-informed decision-making by government.

by DairneGrant on August 24, 2016 at 10:08AM

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