21 April 2011

New Zealand media this week report several incidents of offending by officials.  Agencies they have worked for get mentioned, yet the activities attracting media attention would never be endorsed by those agencies.  This illustrates why the State Services code of conduct imposes a duty on State servants to do nothing that will harm the reputation of their agency or the State services.

The report of a passenger detained in Buenos Aires airport with 5kg of cocaine in her baggage was promoted in newspaper headlines with a link to the Crown Entity from which she resigned 15 months ago, not to either of the private sector businesses that subsequently employed her.

Similarly a report about the arrest of a cannabis grower describes his work at Rimutuka prison.

Both cases involve people “doing their own thing” wholly unrelated to their employed functions. But when charged with criminal conduct, the media focuses on connections to government. This confirms findings from focus groups when the State Services code was being developed;  community expectations of public employees are higher than the private sector. People set higher standards for officials than they do for themselves. But perversely, it seems many also consider that misconduct by one State servant typifies how most behave.  The reputation of all is harmed.  Any offending by one, tars all others.

The State Services Commissioner’s guidance on Understanding the code of conduct advises that “… We must be careful that in the eyes of reasonable members of the public there can be no perception that we are pursuing our personal interests to the detriment of our organisation or to the responsibilities we have to our organisation. We must avoid being connected publicly with behaviour that is likely to bring our organisation into disrepute or diminishes the reputation of the State Services…”