We must maintain the political neutrality required to enable us to work with current and future governments

A major characteristic of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements is that public sector organisations are apolitical. It is important that in the State Services we do nothing that will detract from the ability of our organisations to work with the Government, regardless of the political parties Ministers may represent. Our responsibility to the Government is to work in a politically neutral manner. Our commitment to Ministers must be unaffected by any party-political concerns.

We must act in a way that ensures we are able to establish professional and impartial relationships with future Ministers. Because of the apolitical way we carry out our tasks, those who may be in government at some future date can be confident that we will support them, remain impartial and be equally fit to carry out the work of government under their administration. By remaining constant in our political neutrality, we deserve their confidence and their willingness to work with us. Our responsibility is to do nothing that undermines the ability of our organisation to provide strong support for the good government of New Zealand, regardless of the political composition of the Government.

If we hold a prominent decision-making position in our organisation and take part in high-profile activities that are not directly related to our job, we risk a public perception that we are not able to work in a disinterested, public spirited and politically neutral way. There may be disbelief that we can separate our personal and professional lives. Public trust in our impartiality can be affected. The confidence that the Government or future Ministers have in our organisation can be undermined in the same way. A consequence is that we must always consider the way our actions may be perceived by reasonable observers, and accept that our official responsibilities may place some constraints on the way we exercise our personal freedoms.

From time to time some of us may be required by a Parliamentary Select Committee to attend its deliberations. If that happens, we must be aware that our contribution is as part of executive government. We have a duty to Parliament and in support of the Government. We must be aware of the obligation to ensure our activities are not a surprise to our Minister. If we work in a department, we must have regard to the expectations of our Minister when contributing to Select Committee proceedings. If we work for a Crown entity, we will seek the direction of our board, which in turn will assess the Minister's expectations.

We must be careful when Members of Parliament, regardless of political party affiliation, make direct approaches to our organisation. MPs may be acting on behalf of their constituents or of their own accord, contacting regional or local offices.  Generally, in these situations, State servants should respond to the request in the same way as they would to a member of the public.

However, any requests by MPs for information or services over and above what would normally be provided to a member of the public (e.g. a visit to an agency's premises or a substantial briefing) must be referred directly to the agency's Chief Executive.  In general, the Chief Executive will inform the appropriate Minister and the request should be met only as agreed by the Minister. An enquiry made in a private capacity should be managed in a strictly impartial way. Where there is doubt about the nature of an approach, we should refer the matter to our chief executive who, if the approach is inappropriate, will refer it to the Minister.

For most of us in the State Services, participation in party politics is not likely to affect the confidence that the Government has in the organisation we work for, and is not likely to undermine our ability to work with future governments. What we must do is ensure that we do not confuse our political rights with our employment responsibilities. This requirement is the same whether we work for a department or for a Crown entity. It means we must always be conscious of our shared responsibility to ensure that our organisation maintains the confidence of Ministers.

We are encouraged to discuss actual or intended political activities with our manager who should be in a position to clarify the relationship between our employment responsibilities and our freedom to exercise civil rights.  Our political interests and activities (and possibly even the political interests of a close family member) have the potential to conflict with our obligations as State servants.  The effective management of such conflicts must balance the role of the organisation we work for and its relationship to the Government, the importance of encouraging a strong democracy, and our personal rights as New Zealanders.   (Although political affiliations are similar to other interests requiring management to avoid conflict, it is not appropriate for organisations to maintain any register of such affiliations.)

In some Crown entities and at junior levels in most organisations, there is little direct connection with Ministers and the political process. Where that is the case, this explanation about impartiality and the political neutrality standard may have limited relevance. The explanation is much more relevant for managerial staff and others with extensive contacts with Ministers.

As a general rule, we are free to belong to any lawful organisation. Our rights to participate in social campaigns and the activities of political parties, unions and professional associations are not precluded because we work in the State Services. But we need to be aware always of the perceptions others may have of our ability to be politically impartial in the way we do our work. When expressing views on behalf of such groups, we must ensure that we will not be seen as speaking on behalf of our State Services organisation.

In some organisations, collective employment agreements may provide a framework for membership of unions, may outline standards about public comment on issues of concern, and may recognise commitments under codes of conduct of relevant professional associations. Organisations must always have regard to their obligations to the Government and determine how they will comply with the requirements of the State Services Commissioner's code of conduct when developing this type of agreement.

Just as membership of a political party is acceptable for most of us, so is helping with fundraising, assisting with a leaflet drop, or taking part in other forms of support for a party. However, senior State servants, and State servants who have a close working relationship with Ministers, should avoid these affiliations.

This standard involves two different principles. It imposes an absolute obligation not to bring our political interests into our work. It also implies that there is a variable tolerance for political involvement. We must maintain in our non-working lives the level of political neutrality that is appropriate for the responsibilities we have. Those of us in very senior positions may be required to have a very low level of involvement, perhaps with our interest being discernible only by a visit to a polling station on election day.

By contrast, if we are unconnected with policy development or are not in a managerial role, we will usually be free to be politically active. What makes the difference is our ability to work not only with the current Government but with future Ministers, following a change in composition of the Government. We must be aware always of how perceptions of our personal activities could undermine the confidence that Ministers have in our organisation.

As always, it is a matter of judgement. Whether it is a political party involvement or taking on a role in a community campaign group, a union or a professional organisation, we must be careful to keep politics out of our job, and our job out of politics.

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We must carry out the functions of our organisation, unaffected by our personal beliefs

The work we do must not be influenced by personal beliefs or commitments. These personal interests can be wide-ranging, including party political, religious, philosophical, and vocational, and can be shaped by all sorts of experiences and upbringing. What we do in our organisation must reflect State Services standards of integrity and conduct and not be undermined by any personal conviction or particular ethical viewpoint we may embrace.

Working for an organisation in the State Services does not preclude us from having strong personal beliefs. Sometimes the strength of our convictions will make it difficult for us to carry out a particular organisational task. The code of conduct is not intended to prevent the expression of conscientious objection in such cases. Conscientious objection is recognised in several statutes 10 . However, where these circumstances arise, we must make sure that our organisation has been alerted to our concerns in a timely way, so that the ability to deliver public services is not diminished.

We must obey all lawful and reasonable instructions given by our organisation and work as directed. We are never justified in ignoring the operating procedures of our organisation and interpreting government policy or exercising our decision-making responsibilities in a way that suits our personal beliefs.

When expressing our personal beliefs in any public debate, and particularly if relating to matters of government policy or activities of our organisation, we should ensure comments we make are appropriate to the position we hold, and are compatible with the need to maintain the convention of party political neutrality. If we occupy a managerial position or work closely with Ministers, we need to exercise particular care.

We must always be alert to the relationships our organisation has with other parts of government and the possible implications of allowing personal beliefs to intrude on our work.

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We must support our organisation to provide robust and unbiased advice

We apply high standards of professionalism to the advice we prepare for our organisation, regardless of whether that advice is for Ministers or other decision-makers. Although most of us may not be directly involved in advising Ministers, it is important that we are all aware of the responsibilities placed on our organisation, and on our senior managers and advisers who work closely with Ministers.

Our advice must be honest, impartial, comprehensive and objective. The traditional expression is "free and frank advice". This relates directly to the need to maintain the confidence of our Minister (as well as any future Minister) and to the principle of political neutrality. Our advice must be free of personal interest, political bias or the interests of our organisation. It should reflect an understanding of the policies and priorities of the Government. It should be transparent and should not contain unclear or hidden agendas.

Free and frank advice is not always the advice Ministers wish to hear. In giving advice, we must be sensitive and responsive to Ministers' aspirations and objectives. At the same time, we should have regard to the concept of public good and concern for the public interest. Our advice should reflect both a wide appreciation of relevant subject areas and our consideration of affected communities.

The role of the State Services is to maintain the confidence and trust of successive governments. To be effective, and in order to be seen by Ministers who comprise successive governments as being fit for that role, we must be impartial both in the way we conduct ourselves and the advice we provide.

Those of us working in a Crown entity that has a role of advising Ministers must be equally impartial in what we do, although we provide advice on behalf of our board members.

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We must respect the authority of the government of the day

All State Services organisations form part of executive government. Our organisations carry out activities on behalf of the Government. We must recognise our relationship to the Government and respect the responsibilities and the authority of Ministers. The way we carry out our roles will influence the confidence the community has in the good government of New Zealand. We must always be aware of the importance of supporting democratic processes and promoting trust in the institutions of government.

There is an explicit difference in the relationship that departments have with Ministers and that between Crown entities and their Ministers. The role of the Public Service is to serve the Government. This means that those of us working in departments have a direct association with our Minister on behalf of our chief executive. As departmental employees, we are "responsible" to the Minister 11 . This contrasts with those of us working for Crown entities, where our relationship with the Minister is through our board. We must give effect to the directions of our board, which in turn must consider how best to maintain its obligations as part of executive government and the expectation that the board operates in a way that retains the confidence of the Minister. Crown entities are "accountable" to the Minister 12 .

Senior staff and those with extensive links to Ministers must always be alert to the implications of working for organisations that are part of executive government and those of us in more junior roles should be aware of those responsibilities.

We must always respect the authority of the Government and the role of Parliament.

We do this by understanding the conventions of parliamentary democracy. Ministers set and comment on government policy. The role of most of us in the State Services is to explain and give effect to that policy. A few State servants hold statutory roles that from time to time may require them to comment publicly about government policy. Some of us work in organisations with independent decision-making or advocacy responsibilities and may be authorised to comment publicly on policy issues. It is only if we have one of these exceptional roles that we may comment about government policy on behalf of our organisation.

We must bear in mind the sensitivity that both current and future Ministers may have about our involvement in high-profile activities that could be viewed as party political. This connects closely with the need to ensure our personal activities are kept separate from our work interests. Where it is appropriate for us to be publicly involved in commenting on matters relating to our organisation, we must make sure that we are not acting in a way that undermines our spirit of service to the community, and that the professionalism of our actions is deserving of the confidence of any government.

It is generally unacceptable for us in our personal capacity to comment on matters of government policy if we:

  • use or reveal any information gained in the course of our work where this is not already known by, or readily available to, the general public
  • purport to express or imply an organisational view
  • act in a way that constitutes a personal attack on a Minister, work colleagues or other State servants
  • criticise in such strong or persistent terms that our ability to give full effect to the executive government responsibilities of our organisation in an impartial way is called into question.

We must not disclose advice we have given to Ministers or make public comment on behalf of our organisation, except in accordance with our organisation's policies for the release of official information.

The extent to which we are able to comment on political matters shows the difference between what is acceptable for those of us working in a Crown entity and those of us who are departmental employees. Some of us in Crown entities, for example in the Housing New Zealand Corporation or the Accident Compensation Corporation, have similar obligations.

However, many of us in Crown entities are not involved in supporting our board to give advice to our Minister, and we carry out operational tasks with only a distant relationship with the Minister. It is this distance that sometimes makes it possible to comment in a personal capacity. We must always have regard to the role and responsibilities of our organisation and ensure that we follow processes to avoid the Minister being surprised by our comments. Where there is scope to comment in a personal capacity we must observe our organisation's policies and procedures.

As in all matters of integrity, exercising judgement is essential.

When our comments relate to implementation or delivery, we have a duty not to compromise our organisation's operations, or our relationships with Ministers.

Maintaining confidence means not only keeping Ministers informed of issues relating to our organisation but ensuring there are "no surprises" regarding policy implementation and delivery. We are expected to advise Ministers in advance of circumstances likely to impinge on the Government's responsibilities, any major strategic initiatives, and issues that may attract public interest or political comment.

A "no surprises" way of working does not interfere with an organisation's independent decision-making role or its operational responsibilities, but reflects the part all organisations play in executive government.

Where it is acceptable for us to comment in a personal capacity about matters in which we have an interest, it may relate to a topic that concerns our Minister, and our organisation should ensure there are "no surprises" for the Minister flowing from such comments. For example, those of us who work for a district health board and want to comment publicly on matters within our areas of expertise or experience will follow the procedure in the Code of good faith for public health sector, and make it clear that our observations are made in our personal capacity or on behalf of a union, having first raised the matter with our organisation and given sufficient time for it to respond.

Working in a policy development area, relating closely with Ministers, or having managerial responsibilities does not prevent us being active members of a union or professional association. However we must not use, for the benefit of the union or professional organisation, information acquired in the course of our work.

Some of us who work closely with Ministers may want to support public debate about issues unrelated to our work. Because it may be detrimental to relationships with the Government for us to be seen to be questioning official policies, there may be circumstances where it is appropriate for us to use unions or professional associations as a vehicle for comment. When doing so, we must be very aware of the integrity of our actions. We must not disclose official information that has not already been made public, nor act in a way that may harm the reputation of our organisation. We must be open and honest about our actions. Openness will usually involve ensuring our manager is aware that we are exercising our political rights in a way that avoids affecting relationships with Ministers.

If we take on a spokesperson role with a union or professional association, we will not be under the same constraints when making comments that are critical of the Government or of the management of our organisation, when such comments are clearly on behalf of that union or association. However, we must always appreciate the obligation to act responsibly, and not act in a way that harms the reputation of our organisation or of the State Services. We must always be aware that any public role will inevitably affect our personal image and our ability to carry out our responsibilities as State servants. Though it may not be improper to take on political activities of this kind, we must accept that a consequence is that, for an indefinite period into the future, we may not be able to resume a more discreet and impartial role.

Our organisation must provide material in a timely way to ensure our Minister is well informed and, when required, can account to Parliament for the efficient functioning of our organisation. Our organisation has a responsibility to alert our Minister to potentially adverse consequences of a proposed course of action, but we recognise that we must not involve ourselves in the political activities of Ministers. It is not our task to protect Ministers from the political process or to assist Ministers in ways that would undermine standards of honesty expected throughout the State Services.

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10 E.g. Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977, section 46

11 State Sector Act 1988, section 32

12 Crown Entities Act 2004, sections 26(2) and 87