17 December 2015

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has released his findings in relation to a complaint from Kris Faafoi MP about aspects of the organisation and running of roadshows promoting the Kiwisaver Homestart programme, that is delivered by Housing New Zealand Corporation (HNZC).

The Commissioner has found two areas where different actions should have been taken to ensure political neutrality and an adequate separation of roles.

"I consider that these errors were due to failures of judgement, and a misunderstanding of the appropriate boundaries of roles," said Mr Rennie.

"I have not identified deliberate bias or inappropriate allocation of government resources in support of party political activity," said Mr Rennie.

Mr Faafoi's complaint relates to the apparent involvement of Government MPs in hosting a State services agency funded event, a staff member in the Office of the Minister of Building and Housing being involved in email discussions of a political nature, and the appropriateness of redactions made in the Official Information Act (OIA) response from HNZC to him on this issue.

"There are clear expectations of State servants set out in the Standards of Integrity and Conduct, in terms of remaining politically impartial," Mr Rennie said.

"These standards ensure that the State services can support both current and future Governments, and are a critical part of maintaining public trust and confidence in our system of public administration," he said.

"Any complaints about behaviour by State servants or agencies that does not meet the Standards of Integrity and Conduct are something I take seriously," said Mr Rennie.

State Services Commission staff have reviewed the relevant paperwork, including an un-redacted copy of the OIA response, and have discussed the matter with the chief executives and relevant senior managers of the agencies concerned, the Minister of Building and Housing, and Mr Faafoi.

Most of the correspondence in these emails was apolitical and unremarkable, regarding bookings, dates and other logistical and administrative matters. However, in some cases the correspondence strayed outside of what is appropriate for a Public Servant into discussing political matters.

"The Minister has advised me that he was not aware this was occurring until it became public, and all parties, including the staff member involved and the Minister, have acknowledged that this correspondence was inappropriate," said Mr Rennie.

"What happened was an error of judgement by an individual, but there is no indication of a wider issue," Mr Rennie said.

This matter has already been addressed directly by the staff member's employer, which is the appropriate way to resolve an issue of this nature.

"In relation to HNZC's involvement in the organisation and running of the roadshows there was an uncomfortable blurring of lines between the appropriate roles of a State services agency, the Office of the Minister and Government MPs," Mr Rennie said.

The issue in this case arises from the proposal that Government MPs from the locality would "host" at least some of the events, and directly invite constituents.

"While HNZC staff were not involved in any activity regarding local MPs involvement in eth roadshows, they missed opportunities to clarify the agency's role in a way that would have avoided a perception it was supporting a local Member of Parliament's event," Mr Rennie said.

HNZC should have sought greater clarity about the role of the Government MP at the event, and actively managed the risk that - as has transpired - the suggestion that a Government MP would "host" the event could lead to a perception that its own role in promoting and organising the event was not impartial.

Overall, SSC is confident that:

  • HNZC officials were endeavouring to support the government's promotion of the HomeStart initiative;
  • funding by HNZC was restricted to appropriate government advertising, in terms of its communication and logistical support; and
  • any blurring of boundaries that occurred due to the suggestion that the events be "hosted" locally by the government MP was not intentional.

"A government event hosted by the Minister to present unbiased and objective information about the implementation of government policy, supported by a State services agency, and attended by local MPs, is entirely uncontroversial," said Mr Rennie.

"Likewise, an event organised and hosted by a State services agency, attended by the Minister, and local dignitaries such as MPs is entirely appropriate," he said.

"These findings are a reminder to all government agencies of the need to ensure staff understand the appropriate boundaries and their obligation to ensure they are impartial - and are seen to be impartial - in all aspects of their conduct," Mr Rennie said.

The chief executives of both agencies concerned have indicated that they accept these findings and will look at internal processes to ensure their staff understand the risks of perceived inappropriate behaviour to themselves, Ministers, and their agencies, and can be helped to manage the boundaries appropriately.

The State Services Commissioner will discuss the lessons from those matters with chief executives, given their importance. State services agencies must be active in ensuring that the interface between the politically impartial work of State servants and the legitimate activities of MPs is managed well. Specifically, these events have highlighted two issues. First, departmental secondees in Ministerial offices should receive active support and coaching from their agencies to perform well, given the complex environment in which they work. Secondly, State services agencies must take care to manage the distinct but equally legitimate roles of State servants in communicating government policy on the one hand, and the political activities of MPs in promoting government policy on the other.

In addition, SSC staff will review the guidance available to support State servants in this area.

Matters relating to redactions made to the OIA response to Mr Faafoi are currently being investigated by the Ombudsman, who has the legal mandate to investigate complaints relating to OIA responses.