1 About this Guidance
This guidance talks about what it means for the State services and State servants to be politically neutral though the lens of a general election. What the guidance does not do is provide template answers. This is because advice and decisions around maintaining political neutrality often require open discussion, a balancing of ideas, judgements to be made, and coming to an answer that is context specific.
In an election period, it is also important to talk about political participation by State servants and remind ourselves that State servants have the same rights of political expression and freedoms as all other New Zealanders while having concurrent responsibility to maintain the political neutrality required of the State services.
State servants can express political views in their own time without undermining the ability of their agency to provide free, frank and impartial advice and support to Ministers. For the majority of State servants, participating in politics outside the work place is unlikely to breach their political neutrality obligations. Some simple controls apply – State servants must not identify their opinions with, or give the impression they are speaking on behalf of, their agency and must not use information obtained in their role that is not in the public domain for political purposes. It is also a well-established convention that stricter requirements apply to State servants who:
- are very senior; have regular direct contact with Ministers; or represent a public face of their agency
- work in a Minister’s office, or
- are actively engaged in providing advice to Ministers on an issue that is the subject of political activity.
State servants are also welcome to stand for Parliament. Here the guidance seeks to support both the State servant and their agency in a good faith employment relationship.
Additionally, State servants are strongly encouraged to vote and to participate in the administration of the election.
Increased public attention to the way agencies carry out their functions, and to the activities of their employees, can be expected. A heightened awareness of the need for State servants to be seen to act with political neutrality does not mean that the work of agencies is disrupted. The Government retains the right to govern through to the election and the ordinary business of government must continue. There can also be an increased sensitivity in the relationships, expectations, and interactions among State servants, Ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs), and political parties. The guidance explains how State servants can continue to fully support the government while maintaining the political neutrality of the State services.
The principles outlined in this guidance underpin the constitutional role of the State services. They contribute to the maintenance of public confidence in New Zealand’s democratic governance, and the strengthening of the institutions of government.
1.2 Who this guidance is for
This guidance is for State services agencies within the State Services Commissioner’s mandate to provide advice and guidance on matters of integrity and conduct. This is Public Service Departments, the New Zealand Defence Force, the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, Statutory Crown entities (including District Health Boards) and their subsidiaries, Crown entity companies and their subsidiaries (excluding Crown Research Institutes [CRIs] and their subsidiaries), School Boards of Trustees, Public Finance Act Schedule 4 Organisations, Public Finance Act Schedule 4A companies, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (see section 57(4) of the State Sector Act 1988).
The Commissioner’s mandate does not include CRIs or their subsidiaries (as noted above), State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and Tertiary Education Institutions (TEIs). The Cabinet Manual, however, states that all the employees in the wider State sector agencies “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.” Given this, these agencies may find this guidance a useful reference point for good practice.
1.3 Standards of integrity and conduct – political neutrality
A central element of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements is that the State services are politically neutral.
The principles and obligations in this guidance derive from the Standards of Integrity and Conduct (see Appendix 1) for the State services.
The Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State services require State servants to:
- maintain the political neutrality required to enable us to work with current and future governments
- carry out the functions of our organisation, unaffected by our personal beliefs
- support our organisation to provide robust and unbiased advice, and
- respect the authority of the government of the day.
In an election year, State servants should pay particular attention to these requirements.
1.4 Election periods
The pre-election period refers to the three months before a general election. In 2017 this is from 23 June 2017 to 22 September 2017. It is during this period during which some restraints on government actions and decision making are expected to be applied.
In 2017, Election Day is the 23 September.
Much of the guidance in this document applies to the whole ‘election period’ – that is, from the start of the pre-election period (23 June 2017) until a new ministry is sworn in.
The principles and obligations in this guidance should also be referred to for by-elections.
1.5 Where to get assistance
State servants who are unsure how to deal with any issue relating to the election period should refer to their agency’s internal guidance (policy and procedures). In case of doubt, State servants should seek advice from their managers.
While each agency remains responsible for the integrity and conduct of its employees, the State Services Commission can also provide support to State servants and agencies. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone (04) 495 6600 and ask for the Election Guidance Team.
The State Services Commission welcomes feedback from users of the guidance. Please email email@example.com, or telephone (04) 495 6600 and ask for the Election Guidance Team.