24 February 2023

Public servants are affected by general elections in two ways: at work, by supporting the operation of government and a change of government, and in their private life, through participating in the democratic process as active citizens, voters and potential election candidates.

A fundamental right in any democracy is the right to vote. An effective and relevant political system will broadly reflect the society it represents. Our democracy is supported by those working in the public sector who exercise their political rights along with other New Zealanders.

Public servants have the same rights to freedom of speech and political activity in their private lives as other New Zealanders. All public servants have a role to play in supporting the integrity of our electoral process and the smooth transition between one government and the next.

Serving government requires public servants to perform their role fairly, impartially and to a high standard. The public sector must ensure it maintains the trust and confidence of both current and future governments, and the public. For example, those working in policy must provide the best, impartial, evidence-based policy advice to Ministers, while those in operational roles must deliver high-quality services to all New Zealanders, in order to maintain public trust.

This guidance outlines some of the factors to consider in managing personal political interests alongside the public sector’s political neutrality obligations.

Integrity and conduct obligations

This guidance sits alongside the Public Service Commissioner's Standards of Integrity and Conduct, agency codes of conduct, agency policies and processes, and employment obligations.

At work, public servants must meet high standards of integrity and conduct and be politically neutral at all times. This guidance discusses the expectations of integrity and conduct, including political neutrality, for the public sector during the election period.

Read the Public Service Commissioner’s Standards of Integrity and Conduct, Code of Conduct for Crown Entity Board Members, and Code of Conduct For Directors of Schedule 4A Companies.

Read Chapter 3 of the Cabinet Manual for more information on integrity and conduct throughout the state sector.

Political neutrality obligations

In serving the government of the day, public servants must be politically neutral. Political neutrality helps to manage the potential for conflict between the public sector’s policy advice role and the Government’s decision-making and advocacy role. The political neutrality convention applies to the public sector at all times, including in relation to elections, by-elections and referendums.

The Public Service Act 2020 includes political neutrality as one of the five Public Service principles. Those chief executives and Boards referred to in section 12 of the Act are responsible for upholding these principles when carrying out their responsibilities and functions. The Public Service Commissioner, as Head of Service, provides leadership of the Public Service, including of its agencies and workforce (see section 43 of the Act).

While public servants have the same rights of political expression as other members of the public, public servants must respect other people’s rights and interests in the workplace, and avoid behaving in a way that undermines the political neutrality of the public service. Chatting about politics or policy in a private conversation with interested colleagues is acceptable but more overt, politically partisan, conduct may not be. For example, it is not appropriate to:

  • wear political party advertising on a t-shirt in the workplace
  • campaign for a political party or a candidate in the workplace
  • provide work contact details to political parties
  • engage with political parties while at work.

Acting responsibly means that public servants should advise their manager if they receive emails from political parties at work, and will not respond to or forward emails from political parties to other public servants or agencies.

Public servants must treat everyone, including political parties, fairly and equally and avoid the perception of discrimination based on their political views or affiliations.

Public funds and publicly funded agency resources must not be used for political purposes. For example, using a work printer to copy political party material is not allowed.

Working in a politically neutral way means that public servants cannot work for, nor service, political entities such as party caucuses and caucus committees as part of their work as government officials. As a government official, they can only attend a caucus meeting of a political party represented in the House at the direction, or with the consent, of the Minister, and with the consent of their chief executive.

Ministerial staff

Like other public servants, ministerial staff must not undertake electioneering work for Ministers during their ordinary work hours or use official resources for political party purposes. Ministerial staff employed by the Department of Internal Affairs are bound by the Code of Conduct for Ministerial staff and are not required to be politically neutral in providing political advice to the Minister. However, Ministerial staff should bear in mind that they are likely to be working alongside public servants who are seconded to Minister’s offices who are subject to the Public Service Commissioner’s Standards of Integrity and Conduct which requires them to be politically neutral.

Read the Public Service Commissioner’s Code of Conduct for Ministerial staff.