State servants and free and frank advice

Develop a standalone Code of Conduct or Guidance for Relationships between Ministers and public servants to complement the Cabinet Manual.  It should be simple and principles based, and developed in consultation with public servants and their unions.  It should be interpreted jointly by the State Services Commissioner (acting statutorily independently) and by the Prime Minister.  Such a document could be the basis for training and for new public servants and new Ministers to understand the nature of the responsibilities when they take up office. 

Ultimately though, the provision of free and frank advice requires a cultural change in the leadership of the public service, led by both chief executives and Ministers.  This type of leadership requires a formal and explicit acknowledgement that our system of government values free and frank advice as an objective.

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.

There is now reasonable evidence that since the 1980s, there has been an appreciable diminution in the willingness of public servants to provide free and frank advice to Ministers and an increasing sensitivity to pleasing Ministers.  For example, blunt advice is offered less easily, softer language is preferred, written advice tends to be less controversial or innovative, more innovative thinking or sensitive issues are tested verbally, and draft advice can be tested with Ministers before being finalised.

The health of our system of government will suffer if the public service becomes politicised - if the public service advises ministers only what they want to hear, or if advice is absent from the written record making it more difficult for the public to access and scrutinise.

by DairneGrant on August 24, 2016 at 10:07AM

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