Published: 23 July 2019

Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler has today announced the outcome of an examination of what led Inland Revenue to commission a public poll that included a question about the political leanings of taxpayers.

In early February 2019 the media reported that Inland Revenue (IR) had, in an online survey about trust in IR and the tax system, asked a question of respondents about their political leanings. 

The Minister of State Services, the Hon Chris Hipkins, asked the Commission to examine what happened and to provide an assurance that the principle of political neutrality is understood within IR.

The Commission looked at the Inland Revenue matter and also asked other government departments to review their surveys, polls and equivalent research over the last five years. They were asked to look for any questions that could potentially be perceived as being politically motivated. Three questions were identified as cause for concern in Mr Ombler’s report:

  1. People often indicate their political affiliation along a spectrum of left and right. Using this divide, where on the spectrum would you place yourself? (from 0 to 10). [The question asked by IR].
  2. Please indicate where on the political spectrum you perceive yourself to be on a scale ranging from 1 (extremely liberal) to 7 (extremely conservative). [Department of Conservation (DoC), in conjunction with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, asked this question in an online survey in September 2017].
  3. How would you describe your current level of positivity towards the Government?” (Extremely positive, positive, indifferent, negative or extremely negative). There was also a free text box where respondents could indicate reasons for their answer. [Statistics New Zealand asked this question in survey that was largely conducted by phone in November 2017 and March 2018].

The three agencies have since reviewed their policies for approving and outsourcing surveys, reminded their staff about the importance of political neutrality and implemented other recommendations in their respective investigation reports. The Commission has today published those reports.

There was no evidence of political motivation. In each case, the public servants were motivated by academic rigour, believing the questions should be included to achieve their department’s legitimate objectives. New Zealand and international research suggested the questions be asked to ensure a more robust, complete result. IR wanted to understand how best to maximise trust in the tax system, DoC wanted to better understand opinions on pest control and Stats NZ wanted to develop an effective marketing campaign for the 2018 Census.

However, Mr Ombler said it was disappointing the agencies either did not identify, or address, the risk of creating a perception of political bias.

“I don’t doubt research on these surveys shows the results might be more meaningful in a broad sense if questions of a political nature are included, but this cannot be at the expense of political neutrality, which is the overriding consideration in the Public Service,” said Mr Ombler. 

“I’m disappointed this has happened. It is never okay for a government agency to seek or collect information on the political leanings or party affiliations of citizens. The three questions asked were ill-judged, inappropriate and had the potential to undermine the principle of political neutrality. 

“It is disappointing political neutrality was not front and centre of the work and thinking behind these surveys. Someone should have asked the question.” 

Mr Ombler said government agencies must also ensure contractors and consultants, who are an extension of the Public Service, were aware of the principle of political neutrality.

“You cannot contract out the code of conduct,” said Mr Ombler.

While the incidents were isolated and not politically motivated, they have served as a timely wake up call. The Commission has taken the following steps to tighten checks and balances across the system:

  • Written to public service chief executives, requiring them to ensure all public surveys undergo a specific check for political neutrality.
  • Written to the Government’s functional lead on procurement, Ms Carolyn Tremain, asking her to work with agencies to improve procurement and ensure the principle of political neutrality is part of any discussions or engagement with businesses who provide survey design services to government. This is important because in all three cases, agencies engaged external contractors who either drafted or were heavily involved in drafting the original questions.
  • Written to the Public Service functional lead on data, Ms Liz McPherson, asking her to work with the data community across government to ensure that the risk of public surveys undermining the principle of political neutrality is well understood throughout the system.

Mr Ombler’s letter to the Minister provides assurance that the principle of political neutrality, which is to be embedded in the new Public Service Act, is well understood and will be observed going forward.

Ends

Media queries: Grahame Armstrong 021 940 457 or grahame.armstrong@ssc.govt.nz

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