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Integrity and conduct throughout the state sector

Principles of public service

3.57 Employees in the state sector must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, officials must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy.

3.58New Zealand's state sector is founded on the principle of political neutrality. Officials must perform their jobs professionally, without bias towards one political party or another. Officials are expected to act in such a way that their agency maintains the confidence of its current Minister and of future Ministers. This principle is a key element of impartial conduct. It provides the basis on which officials support the continuing process of government by successive administrations.

3.59Advice given to Ministers must be honest and impartial, and include all relevant information. It must also be responsive to the priorities determined by the government of the day. Advice must be free and frank, and acknowledge any key information gaps, assumptions, risks, or connections to other matters. This will allow Ministers to take decisions based on the best available evidence and an appreciation of all the options and issues. Once policy decisions have been taken, departments are responsible for their effective implementation.

3.60 Ministers must uphold the political neutrality of the public service and not ask officials to act in any way which would conflict with their obligation of neutrality. Ministers may ask officials to provide them with factual or analytical material, but should not require them to offer comment or opinion on clearly political topics, such as policies mooted by other parties in Parliament. The State Services Commission issues advice about costing political parties' policies in its pre-election guidance.

3.61Political advisers have a specific exemption from the political neutrality requirements. Otherwise, they are subject to the same standards of integrity and conduct as other state servants.

3.62 Employees in the state sector, including staff in Ministers’ offices, should ensure that their personal interests or activities do not interfere with, or appear to interfere with, their obligation to serve the aims and objectives of their employer. They must seek to avoid situations where there could be a conflict, or the appearance of a conflict, between their personal interests and the interests of their employers.

3.63 Where a conflict or appearance of a conflict cannot be avoided, employees should advise their manager and actively work with their employer to establish processes and practices to deal with the issue appropriately.

3.64For further information on conflicts of interest, see guidance from the State Services Commission and the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General.

Processes for upholding the principles of public service

3.65 The State Services Commissioner has a mandate to set minimum standards for integrity and conduct for much of the state services, including public service departments and most Crown entities.

3.66 The State Services Commissioner has issued a code of conduct for the state services, Standards of Integrity and Conduct , which is available on the State Services Commission website. Agencies within the state services must maintain policies and procedures that are consistent with the code of conduct. The Commissioner can vary the code to reflect the circumstances of particular agencies, or of any people undertaking particular functions in an agency.

3.67 Public service departments and agencies in the state services can seek advice and guidance from the State Services Commission on matters relating to the integrity and conduct of employees within the state services. The State Services Commission can advise on:

  1. compliance with the principles of public service; and
  2. the interpretation and application of the code of conduct for the state services, including advice on any particular cases of actual or potential conflict of interest.

3.68 Section 11 of the State Sector Act sets out the circumstances under which the State Services Commissioner may carry out statutory functions and powers in relation to any part of the state services that does not form part of the public service (subject to any legislative provision to the contrary). The Commissioner may act on the direction of the Prime Minister or another Minister, or at the request of the head of that part of the state services.

3.69 In relation to integrity and conduct beyond the state services, the State Services Commissioner has only the functions and powers that are specifically authorised by legislation. A Minister with portfolio responsibility for an agency in the wider state sector may therefore wish to clarify his or her expectations with the chair of the board of the agency at the beginning of their relationship. These expectations may include an understanding that the agency will observe appropriate standards of ethics and conduct equivalent to those set out in the code of conduct issued by the State Services Commissioner (see paragraph 3.66).

Public comment on government policy

3.70 Authorised spokespeople for departments may publicly explain government policy. Defending or justifying it is the Minister's role. If an official is approached to discuss advice given to a Minister, the “no surprises” principle applies, and ministerial agreement may be needed. Having provided advice that becomes public (such as impact statements or summaries), it is usually appropriate for a department rather than the Minister to take responsibility for responding to questions about the advice tendered. However, if the Minister chooses to comment publicly on the advice, officials should not generally respond to those comments in public.

3.71Generally, public servants acting in a private capacity have the same rights of free speech and conduct of their private affairs as other members of the public. They should, however, ensure that their personal contribution to public discussion, including any on social media, maintains a level of discretion appropriate to the position they hold. Senior public servants, or those working closely with Ministers, need to exercise particular care.

Public servants' contact with the House of Representatives and political parties

Select committees

3.72 The select committee is the main parliamentary institution with which public servants have contact. Senior public servants regularly represent the Executive and support the government in terms of the government’s accountability to the House of Representatives through select committees. The primary responsibility of officials is to their Ministers when they provide information or advice to select committees. Officials are subject to ministerial direction on answers to be given and information to be supplied to select committees.

3.73 The State Services Commission and the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives have issued detailed guidance on the relationship between officials and select committees (Officials and Select Committees - Guidelines, available on the State Services Commission's website, and Working with Select Committees, on the Parliament website). Officials should consult these guidelines before attending a select committee (either as an adviser or as a witness) or providing information to a select committee.

3.74 The House of Representatives must receive free and frank answers and evidence from those who appear before its committees. Parliamentary proceedings are protected by parliamentary privilege to ensure that those participating in them, including witnesses before select committees, do so without fear of external consequences. Officials from state sector agencies appear before select committees to support ministerial accountability, and their conduct must be consistent with this principle. Therefore, at a minimum, they have an obligation to manage risks and apply a “no surprises” approach in briefing their Ministers.

3.75 See paragraphs 7.108 - 7.122 for information on the role of Ministers in relation to select committees.

Caucus and caucus committees

3.76 Ministers may from time to time ask officials to attend a meeting of a caucus committee or caucus, particularly to support Ministers in briefing their colleagues about a current issue or proposed legislation. Requests from other sources for officials to attend caucus or caucus committee meetings must be relayed through the relevant Minister and should be accepted only with the Minister’s agreement. The role of officials at these meetings is to provide factual information only. Officials should not comment on the merits of government or party proposals. See paragraphs 7.29 and 7.577.60 for information on the role of Ministers in relation to caucus(es) and caucus committees.

Supporting consultation and negotiation between political parties

3.77 Ministers are responsible for consultation and negotiation involving political parties represented in the House. On occasion, Ministers may call on officials to support them in this process. Ministers should instruct their officials clearly on the nature of the contact, and on whether their role is to support a factual briefing or to support a process of consultation and negotiation. Any contact between an official and a representative of a political party should take place only with the prior approval of the official’s Minister.

3.78 Special rules apply in the period leading up to and following an election, and particular care should be taken at these times (see chapter 6 and guidance on the State Services Commission website).

3.79Information on the coalition and/or support agreements entered into by the parties forming a government is issued from time to time in a Cabinet Office circular. The circular sets out the practical arrangements for implementing any agreement, and provides guidance for Ministers, their staff, and officials on their respective roles and responsibilities in relation to the arrangements.

Private communications with Ministers and members of Parliament

3.80 Officials may communicate with Ministers and members of Parliament about matters affecting them as private citizens. Senior officials or those working closely with Ministers, however, should exercise particular care in doing so. An official is entitled to the same information and level of detail in response to an official information request as any member of the public.

3.81If an employee wishes to communicate privately with a Minister about a matter concerning the agency by which he or she is employed, the Minister should ensure that the employee has first raised the matter with the agency's chief executive.

3.82An employee may wish to disclose a serious wrongdoing in or by an agency under the Protected Disclosures Act 2000. A Minister may receive such a disclosure under the Act only if the employee has first followed the agency's internal procedures for such disclosures, or has disclosed the matter to the agency's chief executive or to an appropriate authority (as defined in the Act).

3.83If, an employee having disclosed a serious wrongdoing, the matter has not been resolved to the employee's satisfaction, the Minister may:

  1. refer the matter to an appropriate authority or to the Ombudsman for consideration, if the Ombudsman has not already considered the matter; or
  2. where appropriate, commission an independent investigator to investigate the disclosure on the Minister’s behalf.
Last updated: 
Saturday, 24 June 2017

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