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Civil Servants - Respecting The Boundaries

Heather Roy's Diary

Civil Servants - Respecting The Boundaries

Mention of civil servants often generates thoughts of British comedy 'Yes Minister', with many quick to recount their favourite episode of Sir Humphrey getting his own way while appearing to appease his political master.

While I've yet to be in a position to tell how close to the truth (or not) this actually is I do, as a back bench opposition MP, meet plenty of civil servants further down the ranks.

At select committees we frequently receive advice from officials on the Bills or issues we're examining. Twice a year we have the opportunity to question Ministry officials during Financial Reviews and Budget Estimates and, occasionally, will be briefed on current issues at the instruction of a Minister.

In reality, the officials' job is to implement the policies of the Government of the day and offer advice. The expectation is that this will be presented in an apolitical way. So where, then, does the day job end and the civil servant's private life begin?

This week Parliament received a report into the Madeleine Setchell case. While civil servants normally shy away from publicity, some inevitably hit the headlines for various reasons.

Madeleine Setchell began 2007 looking to further her career in the civil service. She will end it effectively 'blacklisted'. Her crime was not to have behaved inappropriately or overstepped her position - in fact she reportedly has a good reputation and is an effective communications manager. Her crime was one of association - her partner works for the Leader of the Opposition - and she has been stopped from being employed by, not one but, two Government Ministries because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Is this fair? Does it comply with the New Zealand ethos of freedom of association? Certainly not. Why then, you might ask, does Ms Setchell have no prospects of furthering her career in the civil service under this Labour Government?

The Hunn Report 'Investigation into the public service recruitment and employment of Ms Madeleine Setchell' was released this week (http://www.ssc.govt.nz/upload/downloadable_ files/Report_by_DK_Hunn_to_SSCer_(main_body).pdf). The report makes for interesting reading on Ms Setchell's already well-publicised employment and subsequent dismissal from the Ministry of the Environment.

Then Environment Minister David Benson-Pope was fired for lying about his knowledge of the dismissal of Madeleine Setchell, who fully disclosed her relationship at the time of being interviewed and could not have been expected to be more exemplary in her highlighting a possible conflict of interest. For whatever reason, this was not counted as being relevant to her employment until much later, when the Minister and his office expressed their displeasure at her appointment. The Government has since been at pains to point out that appointments are for Ministry Chief Executives to make alone.

Less known is the fact that - soon after her dismissal - Ms Setchell applied for a job at her former place of employment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Although not appointed to the role, her experience was almost identical: the Ministry was interested in employing her, she declared her possible conflict and sought an assurance that neither the Chief Executive nor the Minister would have the same objections she had just experienced, the matter was discussed with Minister Jim Anderton - who claims not to have expressed an opinion, although it appears this was not the recollection of all involved in the process - and Ms Setchell was denied the job.

This presents significant issues for those working in the civil service in a small country - particularly those working in Wellington which is, in reality, a small town by global standards. We fish from a small pool and conflicts inevitably arise. The State Services Commissioner stated in a newspaper article at the time of Madeleine Setchell's dismissal that conflicts of interest should and could be managed. Unfortunately, she was never given the opportunity for this to happen and her employment was handled very badly.

An element of trust must be engaged - it is entirely possible for two mature adults to manage their conflicting jobs adequately. If lines are crossed and barriers breached there are always sanctions. In small towns the word gets around and, very often, reputations are all people have to rely on. When this is the case, self interest and future prospects are often the determinants of ethical behaviour.

A factor that seems to be an anathema to the governing Labour Party is good old-fashioned decency - the fact that most people know what's right and act accordingly. It often seems that the current environment is to encourage a 'one State' attitude. When I first became involved in politics in Wellington in 2001, I was stunned to discover that civil servants who had been members of my Party were resigning en masse - it transpired that they had been told that political affiliation, and by implication Party involvement after hours, was unacceptable if their jobs were important to them.

Civil servants, like all New Zealanders, have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association - especially in their spare time. Sometimes it seems that these are rare commodities in Wellington.

Meanwhile, everyone sympathises with the plight that Madeleine Setchell has found herself in. If I were in a position to offer advice, it might well be to try her luck with the private sector - which seems to have much less difficulty managing conflicts of interest.

ENDS

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