Written on 14 December 2017 by Peter Hughes

Beehive free and frank advice

Today I am issuing my expectations and formal guidance on free and frank advice.

As State Services Commissioner I have ultimate responsibility for ensuring the state services are politically neutral and provide the government of the day with free, frank and fearless advice. I take that responsibility very seriously.  

Giving free and frank advice is one of the principal tenets of our system of government.

Free and frank advice remains one of the four pillars that underpin the Public Service in its constitutional role and which help ensure the legitimacy of our system of government. The other pillars are political neutrality, openness and transparency and merit appointments.

These things need constant attention. They must be relevant to our time and context in an increasingly fast-paced digital world where advice is frequently given orally.

We’ve been doing a lot of work to strengthen these pillars. In September I issued a new code that asks Ministerial Advisors to recognise and accept that public servants have a duty to provide free and frank advice.  Ministerial advisors will also have access to practical and relevant development and training, recognising the role that they have and how important it is.

Free and frank advice is about supporting Ministers to achieve their objectives and getting the best results and services for New Zealanders.

But it’s important that public servants are clear about what free and frank advice means. It’s not about demonstrating fearless independence for its own sake or officials advancing their own agendas.

To be effective, free and frank advice depends on a relationship of trust and confidence between Ministers and officials. This requires officials to offer constructive ways through issues so that the Government’s objectives are best met, including being honest about the opportunities, benefits, costs, pitfalls and risks in all options under consideration.

The Public Service has a duty of stewardship, to look ahead and provide advice around the future challenges and opportunities New Zealand faces. Complex issues require longer-term thinking.

Political neutrality does not mean public servants should be blind to the political context in the advice we give. A characteristic of good, free and frank advice is that it is offered with an understanding of its political context and implications. But once the Government has decided a policy it is up to chief executives and their departments to implement it.

Free and frank advice is crucial if we are to continue to uphold the impartiality and integrity of the Public Service.

Which is why the new guidelinesFree and Frank Advice & Policy Stewardship – are so important. I thank Andrew Kibblewhite, the Head of the Policy Profession for the Public Service, and his team for leading the development of the new guidelines.

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