Many State servants have their own political views and support particular political parties. Being politically neutral at work does not generally stop you 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 the interest with performing the particular role. The State Services Commission can provide assistance in these situations.
State servants who express their political views in their own time are unlikely to breach their employer’s political neutrality obligations provided that they don’t 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.
State servants who 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 will need to exercise careful judgement when considering political involvement. Their profile and engagement with Ministers and the public, make it more likely that their political activity could affect public confidence in the political neutrality of their agency. The State Services Commission can provide assistance in these situations.
There are no hard and fast rules around the level of political activity that State servants can engage in outside work.
There are some things to think about in engaging in any political activity outside work that might impact the employment relationship. Whether a particular political interest or activity might impact on a work role, and whether it can be managed, may depend on the:
- seniority of the role
- nature of the role
- visibility of the political activity
- substance of the political activity.
The seniority of the role
Working in the State services is a privilege, involving ready access to government information, status and influence. The more senior the role, 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 that visible or public political activity outside work may be. State servants who work in top tier positions, including senior agency management and specialist positions, must take particular care about public perceptions when outside work.
The nature of the role
Any potential for overlap or conflict will depend on what the role involves or the requirements of the role. State services roles that are more likely to have potential overlap with a State servant’s political activity outside work include roles that involve regular, direct contact with Ministers; communication on behalf of the agency or advising Ministers on politically topical issues.
The visibility of the political activity
The more visible the political activity, the more likely it can have a damaging effect on the perceptions of the State services’ political neutrality.
State servants must assess whether the level of visibility of the intended political activity could affect the confidence of Ministers and the public that their agency is able to operate in a politically neutral manner to serve the current and future governments.
The substance of the political activity
While voting in the election is always an acceptable political activity and encouraged, political expression that involves breaching the law or a code of conduct is never acceptable. For example, the unauthorised disclosure of government information, personal attacks on MPs or Ministers, or the misuse of government resources for political purposes.
Questions to ask about whether the political activity could interfere with work or the legitimate interests in the political impartiality of the State services, are whether the political activity:
- has a negative impact on the confidence of Ministers and the public in the political neutrality of the State services
- interferes with duties or workplace relationships
- involves a serious breach of the code 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 State services.