Neutral public servants unable to respond to critics

You will have seen some quite personal criticism of the Head of the Ministry of Health in the media recently.

You may also have seen a letter from me asking Members of Parliament to refrain from public criticism of him. I want to talk here about why I did this.

We live in a democracy and that means it is the government that gets to make the decisions about a wide range of very important things; how much tax people pay, for example, and what their taxes get spent on. Public servants don’t make these decisions.  The job of public servants is to loyally carry out the decisions of the government of the day.

From time to time the government changes. Voters go to the polls and a different party or parties get to lead the government.  Public servants have to be ready to work with whatever government the people elect to power. To do so they must have and retain the confidence of MPs who become ministers in the new government.

For this reason public servants never get involved in public discussion or disagreements with MPs.  To do so would drag us into political debate, into the debate that politicians have with each other and would compromise our ability to work in the future with whatever government voters elect. It would compromise our political neutrality as Public Servants.

So when the Director-General of Health was publicly criticised by an MP he could not possibly answer back or defend himself. We can all see the unfairness of criticising someone who can’t answer back.

In our system there is a fair alternative to public criticism. That is to raise any issues directly with me. That’s one of the reasons we have a State Services Commissioner; my job (amongst other things) is to deal with any issues that come up regarding Public Service chief executives and their departments. In doing that, I keep the Public Service out of politics.

One of my responsibilities is to review the performance of Public Service chief executives.  These reviews do not take place in public, and neither should they.

As I’ve said, any issues or concerns with a chief executive’s performance can be raised directly with me.  I am happy to meet with, or hear from anyone in this regard.  I will treat all feedback seriously and in confidence.

It’s important for us as public servants, that the courtesy and respect I expect us to show the public is also extended to ourselves and our colleagues.

Last updated: 
3 weeks ago