24 February 2023

Rights, freedoms and responsibilities

Public servants have the same rights as other New Zealanders. Like other New Zealanders, public servants are strongly supportive of good government and care about the issues affecting New Zealanders.

Political interests

Many public servants have their own political views and support particular political parties. Being politically neutral at work does not generally stop public servants from being politically active outside work, such as attending political party meetings or delivering pamphlets.

In general, there is nothing wrong in having interests or activities outside work that may create a conflict with your agency role, so long as they are identified and appropriately managed. However, there may be circumstances where it is difficult to reconcile personal interests with performing a public sector role.  Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission can provide assistance in these situations.

Public servants who express their political views in their own time are unlikely to breach their employer’s political neutrality obligations provided that they do not identify their opinions with their agency; give the impression they are speaking on behalf of their agency; or use confidential government information for political purposes.

Public servants will need to exercise careful judgement when considering political involvement if they:

  • are very senior
  • have regular, direct contact with Ministers
  • represent their agency
  • work in a Minister’s office or provide advice to Ministers on an issue that is the subject of political activity.

Their profile and engagement with Ministers and/or the public make it more likely that their political activity could affect public confidence in the political neutrality of their agency, or the confidence of Ministers. Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission can provide assistance in these situations.

There are no hard and fast rules around the level of political activity that public servants can engage in outside work.

There are some things to think about in engaging in any political activity outside work that might impact your role as a public servant. Whether a particular political interest or activity might impact on a work role, and whether it can be managed, may depend on the:

The seniority of the role

Working in the public sector is a privilege, involving ready access to government information, status and influence. The more senior the role within the structure of the agency, the greater that person’s profile, influence, and proximity to Ministers and government is likely to be. The greater the seniority and influence, the less appropriate  political activity outside work may be. These public servants must take particular care about engaging in political activity outside work and carefully consider public perceptions.

The nature of the role

Any potential for overlap or conflict will depend on what the role involves or the requirements of the role. Roles that are more likely to be impacted by a public servant’s political activity outside work include those that involve regular, direct contact with Ministers; communication on behalf of the agency; or advising Ministers on politically topical issues.

The scope and scale of the political activity

While voting in the election is always an acceptable political activity and is encouraged, political expression that involves breaching the law or a code of conduct is never acceptable. For example, the unauthorised disclosure of government information or the misuse of government resources for political purposes is not acceptable.

Public servants should consider whether the scope and scale of the political activity could interfere with their work duties or the political neutrality of the public sector.  Questions that could be asked are whether the political activity:

  • has a negative impact on the confidence of Ministers and the public in the political neutrality of the public sector
  • interferes with duties or workplace relationships
  • involves a serious breach of the Standards of Integrity and Conduct or criminal conduct, for example, involves the unauthorised release of data, other government information, private or personal information, government policy or financial information
  • brings into question someone’s ability to perform their role in the eyes of the public
  • causes some other kind of harm to the legitimate interests of the public sector.

Managing significant political interests

Where public servants have significant political interests, agreements between the agency and those public servants can manage and mitigate the political neutrality risks to their role and the agency, while supporting them to exercise their individual political rights outside work. What is ‘significant’ will depend on a number of factors, such as the scope and scale of the political activity, and the seniority and nature of the person’s role.

Discussion between public servants with significant political interests and their manager about how the political activity may impact their work can help get agreement and resolve any uncertainties. These discussions should occur as early as possible, and be recorded in a management plan, particularly for senior public servants and those who interact regularly with Ministers.

Generally, there is nothing wrong in having interests or activities outside work that may create a conflict with a work role, so long as actual and perceived conflicts are identified and either avoided or actively managed. A good management plan helps manage political interests that may affect a public servant’s work role, and for election candidates, a good plan will help smooth a possible return to work post-election.

A good management plan will record the public servant and agency’s agreement as to how interests will be safely and transparently managed. It will support and protect the rights of the public servants, while safeguarding the political neutrality of the agency. Things to think about in creating a plan include:

  • the work role and seniority
  • interaction with Ministers
  • access to information, including policy information
  • if applicable, whether the role will be affected by standing for Parliament.

Agencies will have their own policies and processes for dealing with interests. Plans can be recorded in different ways and with varying levels of formality.

Read the Office of the Auditor General’s guidance on managing conflicts of interest.

Read the Public Service Commissioner’s Conflict of Interest Model Standards.

Public servants standing for Parliament

Public servants have the same right to stand for election to Parliament as other New Zealanders. This right sits alongside the responsibility to act in accordance with the Standards of Integrity and Conduct and to maintain the politically neutral reputation of the public sector.

Read the - Electoral Commission’s advice for candidates standing for electionCandidate Hub | Elections.

If standing for election, public servants must separate their political candidacy from their work role and their agency. They should also take care not to appear to use their employment to political advantage or act in a way that is inconsistent with the Standards of Integrity and Conduct. Examples include:

  • linking their campaign to their work role
  • appearing to use confidential government information or advice
  • acting in other ways that may detrimentally affect the politically neutral reputation of the public sector.

It is important to notify the employer of the candidacy and put an agreed management plan in place early on, as outlined in the section: Managing significant political interests.

Taking leave and returning to work

Public servants should inform their chief executive as soon as they are confirmed as an election candidate.

The Electoral Act 1993 sets out requirements relating to the candidacy and election of some ‘State servants’ (as defined in section 52) State servants covered by these provisions (including those employed by Public Service departments and departmental agencies, the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Defence Force, the Education Service (as defined in section 10(7) of the Education and Training Act 2020) and the Cook Islands and Western Samoan Public Service) are required  to take leave of absence from Nomination Day until the first working day after election day. Nomination Day is the last day a person can be nominated to stand for election. The Electoral Commission has announced that for the general election this year, Nomination Day will be Friday 15 September, 2023.

In some cases, it may be necessary for the period of leave to commence before Nomination Day (Electoral Act 1993 section 52(4)). This can happen when the employer decides, after consulting the employee, that the employee’s candidacy materially affects their ability to carry out their duties as a State servant satisfactorily, or to be seen as independent in performing their duties.

During the period of leave, the State servant should not carry out any official duties, and is not entitled to any salary or other remuneration except paid annual leave.

There is no statutory requirement to take leave of absence for public servants who are employed in Crown entities and other government organisations. However, in discussion with their employer, they also need to consider the impact of their candidacy on their role and on Ministers’ and the public’s confidence in the agency, and whether it would be appropriate to take leave from their role at some point during the campaign period.

The Electoral Act 1993 section 53(2) provides that State servants who are elected to Parliament automatically vacate their role. Unelected candidates can return to work the first working day after polling day. However, in rare cases, a change of duties or role may be appropriate.

Board members standing for Parliament

While board members are encouraged to participate in the democratic process as individuals, board members are expected to avoid perceived or actual conflicts of interest, including any that relate to political activity.

The Public Service Commissioner’s Codes of Conduct for Crown Entity Board Members and Directors of Schedule 4A Companies include responsibilities to act in a politically neutral manner and to identify and manage conflicts of interest.

Read Ministers’ expectations of Board members standing for Parliament.(PDF, 646 KB)

Board members who are thinking of standing for election are advised to discuss it with their Chair and monitoring department.

The Crown Entities Act 2004 (CE Act) explicitly addresses the effects of being elected on board roles. Members of Parliament are disqualified from being board members of Crown entity companies (section 89 CE Act) while appointed board members of statutory Crown entities (that is, Crown agents, autonomous Crown entities and independent Crown entities) immediately cease to hold office upon becoming Members of Parliament (section 45 CE Act). However, elected members (that is, not appointed) of statutory Crown entities may retain their board positions while concurrently serving as Members of Parliament (section 30(3) CE Act).

In addition, section 97 of the CE Act provides that a Crown entity parent company must ensure, to the extent that it is reasonably able to do so, that none of its Crown entity subsidiaries has a Member of Parliament as a member.

While conflicts arising from personal political interests may continue post-election and must be managed, in general, a board member who has stood down from their board role to campaign and is not elected can return to their board role.

Media, including social media

Public servants are free to talk to the media and use social media in their private lives, in the same way as other citizens. The Standards of Integrity and Conduct, political neutrality obligations and agency policies apply to all media communications outside work as with other forms of communication. There must be a clear separation between the work role of public servants and their personal use of media. For example, a public servant could appear in a TV interview in their capacity as a charity volunteer, where it is clear that they are not representing a public sector agency.

While some aspects of social or other media may be outside a user’s control, public servants are expected to take reasonable care that their media communications do not undermine the political neutrality of the public sector. Maintaining political neutrality in a work role means separating personal political comments in any media, including on social media, from work life. For example, public servants must not link their personal political comments to their LinkedIn work profile.

As with other types of behaviour, private activity in the media, including social media use, will only be a concern to an employer if it negatively impacts on the employee’s role as a public servant. Trust and confidence will be affected by media use that involves unlawful conduct, a breach of the code of conduct or that otherwise brings the employer into disrepute.

Using social media in personal life

Private comments can become public on social media, so it always pays to think before posting material online and to exercise good judgement when posting.

It is never a good idea to air workplace grievances online or be disrespectful of others when using social media. If someone is unsure about what is acceptable, they may want to talk to their manager or an HR advisor at their workplace.

Social media posts are covered by the Electoral Act 1993 rules on political advertising. Political comments made by individuals who express their views on their own website or through social media are exempt from the rules, as long as they do not make or receive payment in relation to the publication of those views.

However, as all political advertising is prohibited on election day; even individuals covered by this exemption cannot post new political messages on election day.

For public servants who operate their own websites, managing social media risks may involve, for example, moderating content on a site, or not responding to posts.

Read the Public Service Commission’s guidance for public servants’ personal use of social media.