24 February 2023

The role of the public sector

The public sector serves the government of the day and the public of New Zealand. The public sector is responsible for advising on and implementing the Government’s policy decisions and delivering public services.

Public sector policy and processes

A positive, open and politically neutral working environment provides a foundation for supporting public servants and respecting their individual rights and freedoms.

Public sector chief executives and board chairs are responsible for the integrity and conduct of their agencies and maintaining the agency’s political neutrality. This includes during the election period.

Policies and processes play an important role in informing public servants about what they need to know at work, including how to conduct themselves appropriately. Policies and processes need to be consistent with this guidance, including respecting individual rights and freedoms.

Useful and relevant policies will cover the significant issues that can come up for public servants during the election period. This includes social media use, dealing with government information, advising the Minister appropriately, and notifying and managing outside work interests. It is important that these policies and processes are regularly communicated across the agency.

Information requests and release of government information

Agencies and their Ministers are obliged to release government information during the election period in the normal way. Information can be released proactively or in response to a request under the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA).

Official information request responses

The timely release of official information requested by the public is important in supporting our democratic processes. It is particularly important during the election period given the importance of a well-informed electorate.

As is always the case, public servants must be even-handed in responding to information requests and treat all requesters equally. The only reasons for withholding information are those specified in the OIA. Agencies need to be attentive and ensure the rules are consistently applied.

Public servants must not become involved in assessing the political consequences of releasing information. Where an agency considers their Minister may have an accountability interest in the requested information, then it may be appropriate to notify the Minister of the agency’s decision on the request. However, this notification should not produce delay in the agency responding to the request.

Agencies may need to consult their Minister on some OIA requests. Whether consultation is required must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Consultation may be appropriate when:

  • the Minister supplied the information or it was generated on behalf of the Minister
  • it relates to the Minster’s functions or activities
  • release could affect the Minister’s functions, activities, or legitimate interests.

The final decision on a request rests with the agency.

Agencies are obliged to transfer an OIA request to their Minister’s office when the request is more closely connected to the Minister’s functions than the agency’s, regardless of whether the agency also holds the information.

Proactive release of Cabinet papers

The Cabinet-mandated policy is for Ministers to proactively release all Cabinet and Cabinet committee papers and minutes within 30 business days of final decisions being taken by Cabinet, unless there is good reason either not to publish all or part of the material, or to delay the release beyond 30 business days.

The proactive release of Cabinet papers continues as normal. Agencies should not become involved in assessing the political consequences of releasing information.

Information requests from Caucuses and Members of Parliament (MPs)

Caucuses are political entities and cannot direct the public sector to provide information; only the Minister can.

Agencies may get information requests from MPs. MPs have the same rights as other New Zealanders in accessing information, but no additional rights.

See Case study scenario 3: Public sector agency receives an information request from its Minister.

Further guidance about information requests

For further guidance about responding to requests for information from Ministers and political parties, see Section 7: Government processes before, during and after an election.

Read the Public Service Commission’s guidance on Minister and agency official information requests.

Read the Cabinet Manual for more information on OIA releases.

Read the Ombudsman’s guidance on release of information for Ministers and agencies and official information requests during an election period FAQs.

Business planning and decisions

In an election year, agencies have particular responsibilities for supporting the incumbent government’s priorities, the continuity of government business and a smooth government transition, in addition to maintaining political neutrality.

As soon as the election is announced, agencies must make decisions about business that must be progressed before the election and the timeframes for any related Cabinet papers. Agencies must work to ensure that all pressing business matters are dealt with well before the election and that all other agency business continues as much as possible, within the constitutional constraints, over the election period.

It is important that agencies make their significant business decisions in time to include these in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update (PREFU).  The PREFU must be published between 20 and 30 working days before the election date.

Other matters to consider include:

  • regulatory or annual processes that require ministerial decision or Parliamentary action
  • processes with statutory deadlines
  • the passage of legislation
  • preparing the first draft of the briefing for the incoming Minister (BIM)
  • managing any significant appointments to avoid the pre-election period
  • advertising and communications that could look like public funding of political messages: read Cabinet Office Circular CO(23)1: Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period.

The Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update

Twice a year the Treasury publishes forecasts for the Government’s finances and the economy, called Economic and Fiscal Updates (EFU). The EFU provides a detailed statement of the Government's financial position, including updated economic and fiscal forecasts, analysis of the fiscal position and a summary of specific fiscal risks.

In an election year, a Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update (PREFU) is published under the Public Finance Act 1989. The PREFU incorporates the fiscal and economic implications of both government decisions and global factors as at the date of publication, and as communicated to the Treasury by the Minister of Finance, in accordance with the Public Finance Act 1989.

It also considers other economic and fiscal information available to the Treasury. Treasury ensures that the economic and fiscal costings provided to Ministers for decision-making are as complete and reliable as possible. Chief executives and chief financial officers must officially confirm they have notified the Treasury of all matters that could affect the fiscal and economic outlook.

Managing MPs’ visits

MPs may visit agencies from time to time as the representative of a constituent in their electorate. During the pre-election period, MPs may request visits to agency premises for other reasons. This may be in their capacity as the Minister, local MP, party leader or as a candidate.

MPs may also make requests for public servants to attend a political event to provide their expertise.

While it is appropriate to refer an MP’s request to visit an agency to the Minister, the agency’s chief executive must consider any risks to political neutrality. They can decline a request if the proposed visit seems likely to breach political neutrality or if a request is otherwise considered inappropriate for the agency. Factors that the chief executive may take into account are:

  • the capacity or role in which the MP is acting (for example, as the Minister or an election candidate)
  • the nature and purpose of the requested visit (for example, to open a new building or for campaigning purposes)
  • the presence of any government representatives or political party representatives
  • the timing of the visit.

For example, it would be appropriate for a school to permit a MP to speak at a school event where it is clear the MP is participating as the local member. However, it would not be appropriate for a school event to be used as a party political platform by the MP.

To help manage the risk of an MP visit being seen as electioneering, an agency could take practical steps such as deferring the publishing of any photos of the visit on its social media until post-election. The agency could also ask the MP or party in advance whether they intend to film, photograph, or record the visit and, if so, how that material will be used to help the agency assess whether the visit or publicity of the visit could call into question the political neutrality of the agency.

For further guidance on programme launches and events involving Ministers and MPs, see Section 5: Public sector advertising, publicity and media.

Using public funds and resources

It is never appropriate to use an agency’s public funds or publicly funded resources for political purposes. For example, using an agency’s vehicle to transport Ministers to a political event, or using agency funds to cater for an event the Minister is hosting for party colleagues is not appropriate.

While agency premises should never be used to host political activity, the Electoral Act 1993 allows an exception to this: it allows schools to be used by political parties for election meetings. Another exception is that, like the public, political parties can hire premises that are public venues, on normal commercial terms.

Non-agency material

In some workplaces, it may be permissible for public servants to share non-agency material with their colleagues on a staff noticeboard or similar. Agencies must take care to ensure that any material hosted on agency’s premises is not classified as election advertising under the Electoral Act 1993.

Internal communications

Being politically neutral also applies to communications within an agency. For example, political material, whether it is for the general election or preferences in referendum voting, must not be displayed on agency premises, vehicles, websites, or emailed from the agency.

Union activity

Unions can conduct their activities at workplaces and can share their approach to party policies with their members. Union material must not be displayed in any areas of the agency that are accessible to the public.