Why should we fear that public service neutrality is eroding


OPINION: In the excitement of North Korean expert Sir John Key’s column this week, another rather remarkable opinion piece has gone largely unnoticed.

A newspaper column by Phil Grady, Acting Deputy Director of Mental Health and Addiction, one of the Department of Health’s senior officials, praised the new mental health strategy launched by his minister, Andrew Little.

It was a “once in a generation” initiative and gave him “real hope for the future of the well-being of the country”.

Grady’s language, coming from a member of the public or a mental health lobby group, would sound just enthusiastic, rather than the exaggerated oratory of the DPRK. Coming from a civil servant, it was still quite unusual.

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The reason is that the concept of political neutrality is at the heart of the New Zealand civil service. The officials who populate the state apparatus – the departments, ministries and agencies that make up what we encounter in our daily lives as “government” – are apolitical.

In this system, “neutrality” has a specific meaning. The Standards of Integrity and Conduct for Public Servants describe him as being able to “work with current and future governments,” rather than being completely oblivious to politics in isolation like a monk.

Radio Tarana

Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson chats with Radio Tarana’s Vandhna Bhan as Mental Health Awareness Week kicks off in New Zealand.

Their role is to advise and implement government policy (in the sense of elected officials, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet). Part of this implementation may include explaining and informing about government policy, but it should not include advocating for it in public or personal praise.

Following this logic, what would Grady do if a new government were elected, with a different mental health policy? Would he praise it as even better? Would he write a column criticizing his new minister? The stakes are becoming evident.

This neutrality is not a given in all political systems. When a new president is elected in the United States, he must appoint approximately 4,000 officials in government agencies. This is one way to ensure that senior officials are aligned with the new administration; it is also a way of rewarding loyalists, donors and political agents.

Monday’s column is just the latest sign of an old and disturbing erosion over decades of the line between politics and public service in our country.

Checking Bloomfield's name in Covid updates, Ardern


By checking Bloomfield’s name in Covid updates, Ardern “can capitalize on his patina of authority and expert seriousness,” writes Ben Thomas. But as public servants become more and more important, the concept of ministerial responsibility deteriorates.

An obvious and vivid example is the CEO of Health and reluctant celebrity, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. For obvious and legitimate reasons, Bloomfield has been engaged to help communicate the facts about the pandemic, best public health practices, and health advisories.

He is an outstanding communicator, and the range of issues and topics that the media and ministers have asked him to address has widened.

When the Prime Minister announced her decision to upgrade Auckland from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 3, she began by saying “we have accepted the advice of the CEO” to do so. In reality, the decision to move alert levels is a political one that weighs on health, epidemiology, public support, economic activity and government spending, and a myriad of other issues.

But by checking Bloomfield’s name, the Prime Minister can capitalize on his patina of authority and expert seriousness.

It is perfectly appropriate for policies to outsource the perception of responsibility to the public service. The flip side of increasingly important senior officials is the deterioration of the concept of ministerial responsibility.

This is why more and more government failures are dismissed by ministers as “operational issues” that do not concern them.

The downside to the public is a landscape where the responsibility continues to shift until it is all but gone.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes wrote a rare column against a radio host's criticism of Bloomfield.

Ross Giblin / Stuff

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes wrote a rare column against a radio host’s criticism of Bloomfield.

This ten-progressive pandemic ”.

Reasonable people could argue about this assessment of the CEO’s mental dynamism. But not according to Hughes. “I know better,” he wrote. “I know Dr Bloomfield is a dedicated public servant who works hard every day to make a difference for New Zealanders.”

But political risk can never disappear, it can only be shifted. The risk for civil servants is that they may be left in charge of political decisions. Hughes should know that. He was part of a lawsuit brought by Winston Peters for the disclosure of confidential pension information in 2017.

Ben Thomas: The 'no surprises' policy

Chris McKeen / Stuff

Ben Thomas: The ‘no surprises’ policy “has done more than anything to get public servants to think like politicians since the late 1990s.”

When an error in Peters’ payments was discovered by staff at the Department of Social Development, it was spotted throughout the chain and ultimately shared with ministers who had nothing to do, under the rule. “No surprises” – a policy that officials must keep ministers informed about. potential controversies and has done more than anything else to get officials to think like politicians since the late 1990s.

The New Zealand public service, for all Hughes’ personal importance and the excesses or sloppings that fuels critics like the Taxpayers Union, is world class. The speed with which, for example, the first wage subsidy was translated from a political idea into deposits in hundreds of thousands of bank accounts was an extraordinary administrative achievement and crucial to public confidence.

For the sake of this trust, the public service and politicians should resist the urge to take advantage of it by turning it into political fodder.

Ben Thomas is an Auckland-based public relations consultant and political commentator. He was previously the press secretary for the national government.

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