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Ministers and the public service

3.6The formal relationship between Ministers and the public service is governed primarily by the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act. The relationship is also governed by convention, key aspects of which are set out in this chapter.

Roles and responsibilities

3.7Ministers decide both the direction of and the priorities for their departments. They are generally not involved in their departments' day-to-day operations. In general terms, Ministers are responsible for determining and promoting policy, defending policy decisions, and answering in the House on both policy and operational matters.

3.8Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to free and frank advice provided by the public service.

3.9Officials are responsible for:

  1. supporting Ministers in carrying out their ministerial functions;
  2. serving the aims and objectives of Ministers by developing and implementing policy and strategy;
  3. actively monitoring the performance or condition of state sector organisations, government assets, and regulatory regimes within their Ministers’ portfolios;
  4. informing Ministers of significant developments within their portfolios, and tendering free and frank advice; and
  5. implementing the decisions of the government of the day.

3.10 Officials must be politically neutral in their work, serving the current Minister in such a way that they will equally be able to serve any future holder of the office. This principle of political neutrality is central to the public service's ability to support the government of the day and any future government.

Ministers' relationships with chief executives

3.11The main point of contact between the Minister and a department in the public service is the chief executive. Chief executives are responsible to their portfolio Ministers, under section 32 of the State Sector Act, for the:

  1. department’s or departmental agency’s carrying out the purpose of the Act;
  2. department’s or departmental agency’s responsiveness on matters relating to the collective interests of government;
  3. stewardship of the department or departmental agency, including of its medium- and long-term sustainability, organisational health, capability, and capacity to offer free and frank advice to successive governments;
  4. stewardship of assets and liabilities on behalf of the Crown that are used by or relate to the department or departmental agency, and of the legislation administered by the department or departmental agency;
  5. performance of the functions and duties and the exercise of the powers of the chief executive or of the department or departmental agency (whether imposed by any enactment or by the policies of the government);
  6. tendering of free and frank advice to Ministers;
  7. integrity and conduct of the employees for whom the chief executive is responsible; and
  8. efficient and economical delivery of the goods or services provided by the department or departmental agency and how effectively those goods or services contribute to the intended outcomes.

3.12 Chief executives are also responsible to their responsible Ministers for the financial management, performance, and sustainability of their departments under section 34 of the Public Finance Act. They advise appropriation Ministers on the efficiency and effectiveness of expenditure under both departmental and non-departmental appropriations administered by their departments.

3.13Chief executives are responsible for matters relating to the employment of individuals within their department (see paragraphs 3.333.34). Chief executives, or other staff within the department, may also have independent statutory functions. While they are required to exercise these independently, chief executives should still keep Ministers informed as appropriate under the “no surprises” principle (see paragraph 3.22).

Accountability documents

3.14 Ministers are concerned not only with the short-term performance of their departments, but also with the capability of their departments to continue to deliver government objectives in the longer term. Ministers' priorities for departments and the standard of performance expected of their departments are specified in key accountability documents.

3.15Accountability documents may include:

  1. one-year performance information, to be found for example in supporting information to the Estimates of Appropriations;
  2. medium-term performance information, found for example in information on strategic intentions and documents containing the information required by section 40 of the Public Finance Act;
  3. plans providing a medium-term perspective on departments in the context of their longer-term vision, such as four-year plans; and
  4. output plans agreed between the chief executive and the relevant portfolio Minister for each Vote the department administers when more detail is needed than that included in the supporting information to the Estimates.

Briefing for incoming Ministers

3.16 When a new Minister is appointed or a Minister assumes a new portfolio (whether after a change of government or during the term of a government), the chief executive of the department prepares a written briefing for the Minister. The briefing generally:

  1. describes the organisation and responsibilities of the department or agency, and any Crown entities or other state sector agencies within the portfolio, and specifies any decision-making that has been delegated to the chief executive;
  2. sets out the terms of reference, membership, and terms of office for all boards, commissions, tribunals, and so on, for which the Minister has responsibility;
  3. includes an account of major outstanding policy issues and the implementation of current programmes; and
  4. sets out details of pending decisions or action that will be required of the Minister, including recommendations for draft legislation (taking into account any coalition or support agreements, or pre-election undertakings).

3.17The chief executive may give this briefing to the Minister after the announcement of the Minister's appointment, with the approval of the incumbent Prime Minister and with the knowledge of the incumbent Minister and the State Services Commissioner.

3.18The written briefing should be tailored to the needs of the new Minister, and prepared in similar presentation and style to other departmental advice to the Minister. The level of detail included in this initial briefing will vary depending on whether the Minister concerned has had any prior involvement with the portfolio, and whether there has been a change of government.

3.19While the briefing will be subject to the Official Information Act 1982, there is no presumption of public release. Whether a briefing is proactively released publicly is a matter for the Minister, not the department or agency, to decide.

3.20The written briefing is the first part of an ongoing process of briefing the new Minister. Its purpose is to give the Minister sufficient information to meet his or her initial requirements. This initial briefing will need to be supplemented, over a number of weeks, with further written or oral briefings as required.

3.21The State Services Commission has issued further guidance on the content of briefings for incoming Ministers (see the State Services Commission website).

Ministers and officials

3.22 The style of the relationship and frequency of contact between Minister and department will develop according to the Minister’s personal preference. The following guidance may be helpful.

  1. In their relationship with Ministers, officials should be guided by the “no surprises” principle. As a general rule, they should inform Ministers promptly of matters of significance within their portfolio responsibilities, particularly where these matters may be controversial or may become the subject of public debate.
  2. A chief executive should exercise judgement as to whether, when, and how to inform a Minister of any matter for which the chief executive has statutory responsibility. Generally a briefing of this kind is provided for the Minister’s information only, although occasionally the Minister’s views may be a relevant factor for the chief executive to take into account. In all cases, the chief executive should ensure that the Minister knows why the matter is being raised, and both the Minister and the chief executive should act to maintain the independence of the chief executive’s decision-making process. The timing of any briefing may be critical in this regard. As a matter of best practice, briefings should be in writing or at least documented in writing.
  3. It would clearly be improper for Ministers to instruct their departments to act in an unlawful way. Ministers should also take care to ensure that any direction they give their chief executive could not be construed as improper intervention in administrative, financial, operational, or contractual decisions that are the responsibility of the chief executive.
  4. Ministers are ultimately responsible for setting the government’s policy priorities and objectives and are accountable for them in the House. Chief executives must provide their Ministers with all the relevant information and advice to enable the Ministers to set these priorities and objectives. In providing this information and advice, chief executives must take into account the resources available to their departments and the need for stewardship of their departments’ future capability.
  5. On a day-to-day basis a Minister will have contact with the senior officials best able to provide the necessary information or advice. Departmental staff and the Minister’s office should keep the chief executive informed, at least in general terms, of any contact between the department and the Minister. This information helps to keep lines of communication and accountability between the Minister and the department clear.
  6. Ministers should exercise a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with officials. Ministers must respect the political neutrality of the public service and not request that officials act in a way that would conflict with the state services’ Standards of Integrity and Conduct (see paragraph 3.60).
  7. Ministers and departments need a clear shared understanding as to which of them is responsible for media or other public comment on particular issues.
  8. Ministers and senior officials are likely to benefit from ongoing discussion about strategy for the department, and the department’s capability and performance.
  9. Ministers should bear in mind that they have the capacity to exercise considerable influence over the public service. Ministers should take care to ensure that their intentions are not misunderstood, and that they do not influence officials inappropriately, or involve themselves in matters that are not their responsibility. Particular care should be taken with officials who are unlikely to have frequent or direct contact with Ministers, who may be less familiar with the principles, conventions, and working guidelines that govern the interaction between the public service and Ministers.

3.23 Ministers should ensure that staff and advisers in their offices understand the principles governing the Minister's role and the Minister's relationship with public service officials and entities in the state sector. Like Ministers, staff and advisers in Ministers' offices must take care to ensure that they do not improperly influence matters that are the responsibility of others.

3.24 Ministers who wish to obtain information from, or the assistance of, a department other than one for which they are responsible should do so through the relevant portfolio Minister.

3.25 In addition to taking advice from the public service and other parts of the state sector, Ministers may take advice from other sources, including political advisers in their offices. Political advisers have an important role in supporting Ministers in their management of relationships with other political parties and of risk, and in negotiating support for policy and legislative initiatives.

3.26A Minister may involve political advisers in policy development and other areas of work that might otherwise be performed within the Minister's department. The Minister and the chief executive must establish a clear understanding to ensure that:

  1. departmental officials know the extent of the advisers’ authority; and
  2. proper accountability exists for results and financial requirements under the Public Finance Act.

Individual ministerial responsibility for departmental actions

3.27 Ministers are accountable to the House for ensuring that the departments for which they are responsible carry out their functions properly and efficiently. On occasion, a Minister may be required to account for the actions of a department when errors are made, even when the Minister had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the actions concerned. The question of subsequent action in relation to individual public servants may be a matter for the State Services Commissioner (in the case of chief executives), or for chief executives in the case of members of their staff.

Appointment and review of chief executives

3.28 The State Services Commissioner’s role in appointing chief executives and the independence of chief executives in matters concerning their employees underpin the neutrality of the public service.

3.29 The process of selecting most public service chief executives is managed by the State Services Commissioner, in accordance with Part 3 of the State Sector Act. The Commissioner's recommendation is subject to confirmation by the Governor-General in Council, following consideration by Cabinet. Conditions of employment for chief executives are determined by agreement between the State Services Commissioner and the chief executive, but the Commissioner must consult the Prime Minister and the Minister of State Services before finalising the conditions.

3.30The State Services Commissioner also has a role in managing the appointment process for a range of other chief executives and senior officers in the executive branch of the state services, beyond those for which the Commissioner has responsibility under the State Sector Act. These appointments include:

  1. Solicitor-General;
  2. Chief Parliamentary Counsel;
  3. Secretary of the Cabinet/Clerk of the Executive Council (see paragraph 5.87);
  4. Chief of Defence Force and senior defence appointments; and
  5. Commissioner of Police and senior police appointments.

3.31 The State Services Commissioner may assist in the appointment process for certain chief executives and senior officers in the legislative branch of the state sector (for example, the Clerk of the House of Representatives) if requested to do so by the Speaker.

3.32 The State Services Commissioner is also responsible under the State Sector Act for reviewing the performance of public service chief executives and their departments. Various statutory and other mechanisms also enable the Commissioner to carry out performance reviews in relation to the heads of other agencies including the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Defence Force, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, the Parliamentary Service, and the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Chief executives as employers

3.33 The public service is established on the principle of merit-based appointments. Chief executives act as the employing authority for the departments to which they have been appointed. Under section 33 of the State Sector Act, chief executives must act independently in matters such as the appointment, promotion, or disciplining of individual employees. They are not responsible to their Minister in such matters. Generally, the duty of independence and the obligation to act as a good employer will make it inappropriate for a chief executive to involve the Minister in any staffing matter.

3.34 In certain circumstances, chief executives may need to provide their Minister with a briefing on a staffing matter. In such situations, the chief executive should take into account the guidance set out in paragraph 3.22(a)-(c).

Last updated: 
Saturday, 24 June 2017

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