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SSC: 'Potential' Shortlists and Public Perception Issues

Press Conference: SSC: 'Potential' Shortlists and Public Perception Issues


Press Conference at State Services Commission - Iain Rennie on the Appointment of Ian Fletcher

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By Mark P. Williams

At midday today, State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie held a press conference to "clarify" a number of points arising from the appointment of Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB following the revelation of the Prime Minister's intervention.

He began by saying that there were three "key issues" he wished to explain regarding the process of Mr Fletcher's appointment to the role.

  1. He said that "in this kind of appointment" that this role "and roles like it" — such as the Chief of Defence Force, the Police Commissioner, Director of New Zealand Intelligence Service, and the Solicitor General — are all statutory positions which are "appointed by a Minister and who serve at the pleasure of a Minister". He said that the process which is run is therefore different from other employment processes but "how Ministers choose to involve themselves in that process varies".

  2. He said that he recommended someone who does not have a background in the defence force or military because he did not consider that such a background is essential to the role of Head of the GCSB. He added that it was apparent there was a need to focus on areas such as cyber security and working across wider sectors.

  3. He also said he wished to address statements made by ex-GCSB Head Sir Bruce Fergusson on Campbell Live last night. He said that Sir Bruce has "misunderstood the process" regarding the shortlisting for the role — Mr Rennie said that a "potential shortlist" was prepared by a recruitment consultant and then brought to him to discuss before being taken to the responsible Minister for a final decision, in this case the Prime Minister. Mr Rennie said that this "potential shortlist" was then provided with an anticipated interview date if they were successfully selected for the actual shortlist. Mr Rennie went on to say that everybody in the "potential shortlist" was aware they were only on a "potential shortlist" and that the decision as to whether they would be placed on the actual shortlist was to be considered by the Prime Minister.

Mr Rennie then took questions from the press which focused around issues of transparency and public perception. In parting, Mr Rennie noted that such questions have been raised by Ministerial involvement in appointments before and that the matter of public perception was ultimately something Ministers should decide how to respond to themselves and whether it was "worth the candle". Mr Rennie compared the present appointment of Mr Fletcher with the appointment of Clare Curran at the Environment Ministry in 2007.

National Party releases in 2007 described Clare Curran's appointment as being indicative of "an epidemic of naivety when it comes to public sector appointments" which put an end to neutral public service, and exhibited an 'alarming' level of political interference.

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Questions to Mr Rennie

Mr Rennie was asked whether he thought it was a mistake for the PM to ring Mr Fletcher regarding the decision to appoint him. He responded that it may have "created perceptions" that the handling was in some way not fair but emphasised that it is not wrong or unethical for a Minister to recommend that someone enter a recruitment process.

Mr Rennie was asked for clarity as to whether the ultimate decision was his own or the Prime Minister, and to clarify exactly what his advice to the Prime Minister had been about the suitability of candidates for the role. Mr Rennie said that he had provided advice to the Prime Minister that "because of the context [the] GCSB was entering" he did not believe that the skills of the other candidates on the potential shortlist were suitable to "take the organisation forward best".

Mr Rennie was then asked why, if that was the case, he took that list to the Prime Minister for consideration in the first place. He responded that "in the context of this exercise" it was "important […] to keep a high degree of transparency in front of the Prime Minister about what the process was throwing up". He said he then gave his professional advice and indicated he would reflect on seeking other potential candidates.

Mr Rennie was asked about the naming of Mr Fletcher. He responded that he was "not surprised" that Mr Fletcher's name came up but he had not expected the PM to contact Mr Fletcher directly.

Mr Rennie was asked at what point the PM made him aware that he had a friendship with Mr Fletcher. He responded that it was back in 2009 in another context.

Mr Rennie was asked how confident he felt that the process was "all handled above board" given that the PM vetoed the shortlist before contacting Mr Fletcher directly regarding his appointment. He responded "absolutely" — he added that he was "aware of Mr Fletcher's pedigree" and was "totally confident in the process".

It was put to Mr Rennie that the recruitment process had been "cut short". He responded that he did not think that was a fair assessment at all because there was a very limited time to make such appointments because of the timing of the general election.

Mr Rennie was asked what Mr Key had said to him about Mr Fletcher in 2009. He responded that the PM was aware of Mr Fletcher's role at that time — Mr Rennie said he could not recall how the PM had said he was aware of Mr Fletcher's role in 2009.

Mr Rennie was asked whether other candidates were notified about their not being considered for the role after Mr Fletcher had been appointed. He stated that was not correct. Mr Rennie said he had asked the recruitment consultant to "communicate to the potential shortlist that they were not going to be considered further" on the 21st July and Mr Fletcher was interviewed on the 26th July and there was then a process of referee checking after that time. He added that, from memory, the final recommendation to Cabinet went up in the second half of August.

Mr Rennie was asked if the PM "has ever shoulder-tapped people" or "put names forward" for other roles. He responded "I can't recall."

Mr Rennie was asked whether, in hindsight, he would do anything differently to change the general perception of how the appointment had been handled. He responded he would not change the recommendation that Mr Fletcher was suitable for the role and the only issue he would change was that he would have contacted Mr Fletcher rather than the Prime Minister.

Mr Rennie was asked whether his own contract was currently up for renewal and whether he was seeking another term of employment. He said that the terms of his present contract were on the State Services Commission website but that it was a personal employment matter between him and the government whether he was seeking reappointment.

Mr Rennie was questioned whether he would be making any recommendations about "tidying up the process" because of the obvious problems of public perception surrounding Minister's putting someone's name forward for similar public sector positions in future. Mr Rennie responded by comparing the appointment of Mr Fletcher by the Prime Minister to the appointment of Clare Curran at the Environment Ministry under the Labour government, which he was involved in reviewing "in quite a different context in 2007".

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