12 January 2011

The unmasking of a British police officer working undercover among environmental activists raises ethical issues.  People working for government agencies are required to conduct themselves with integrity – and display the values of public service.  The deception inherent in infiltrating protest organisations using a false identity with the intention of engendering close personal relationships, cannot conform to those values.

This type of behaviour cannot meet the specification in the New Zealand Cabinet Manual – that “all employees in the State sector  must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, employees must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy.”

The State Services Commissioner recognised the challenge to notions of being honest that can arise with some enforcement activities.  This is addressed specifically in “Understanding the code of conduct – Guidance for State servants”.

“Honesty does not necessarily mean continuous, full disclosure. In some circumstances, full disclosure is a requirement. Other circumstances may require care. For example, the courts have recognised that organisations that enforce legislation cannot be required to openly disclose their evidence-gathering activities. It is sometimes necessary to disguise the way these activities are carried out. But these circumstances are rare.”

Does this mean that standards of integrity can vary depending  on the situation?