Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

IMHO: Political neutrality in the public service

By Sir Ashley Bloomfield MInstD
7 Mar 2023
read time
3 min to read
Ashley Bloomfield

OPINION: There are five key principles that underpin the work and behaviour of people working in the public service in New Zealand: stewardship; merit-based appointments; free and frank advice; open government; and political neutrality. 

The principle of political neutrality is topical following the recent dismissal of Rob Campbell as Chair of both Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand) and the Environmental Protection Agency. The LinkedIn post that precipitated his dismissal and his subsequent response have been widely covered in the media and attracted comments from various politicians. One of these comments (on Twitter) from ACT leader David Seymour suggested a lack of political neutrality in the public service, contending that “Large parts of the Wellington bureaucracy are openly sympathetic to the Left and that is a serious problem”.

Interestingly, political neutrality is also topical in the UK where a senior Civil Servant, Sue Gray, who led the so-called ‘Partygate’ review has been appointed to be the Chief of Staff for the opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. This has led to her political neutrality being questioned by some politicians, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Political neutrality of the public service is fundamental to the Westminster system of government and relates closely to the principle of stewardship. The latter requires active steps to protect and enhance the medium and long-term capability of the Public Service so it is able to serve successive governments and support public confidence in government.

A lack of political neutrality in the public service - or even the perception of this - would undermine both public trust in government and the ability of the public service to serve successive governments.

The public service is part of the government of the day and its fundamental roles are to provide free and frank advice to inform government decisions and to implement those decisions as effectively as possible. That doesn’t mean the public service is part of or sided with the political party or parties that make up the government.  It is there to ensure the democratically-elected government can implement its policies, whichever parties make up the government.

I’ve spent much of the last 25 years in the public service and cannot recall instances of colleagues demonstrating ‘sympathy’ to either the left or right of New Zealand politics. That is not to say that they did not hold personal political opinions - as one would hope they might as well-informed citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand. The important thing is they didn’t let their personal political beliefs influence or shape the advice to and work they were doing for the government of the day.

Clear instances of a lack of political neutrality are rare and this is partly why Rob Campbell’s comments and dismissal created such a big story.

My role as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic was high profile and I was questioned and, on occasion, criticised by politicians at the time. While it’s not much fun when you are ‘facing the music’, Select Committee and other parliamentary processes are key to ensuring accountability to the public.

However, I also knew it was not personal (at least in most cases!). Since being awarded a New Year’s Honour recently, I have received a number of messages and letters of congratulations and appreciation from current and former MPs (including Prime Ministers) from across the political spectrum. This includes some who grilled me in Select Committee and others who I have never met in person or worked with.

My strong sense is that politicians in New Zealand see and appreciate political neutrality in our public service and understand how important it is for our democracy. Alongside this, public trust and confidence in the public service doesn’t suggest the public see a lack of political neutrality as a problem. Public trust increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and, while it has since dropped, remains above pre-pandemic levels and compares very favourably internationally.

In summary, political neutrality in the public service is essential for effective government in Aotearoa New Zealand and there is no evidence that it is currently compromised. However, this is not something that can be taken for granted and all parts of government, including elected politicians, need to understand its importance and continue to value it highly. 

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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