12 May 2011

The State Services Commission will shortly be publishing its General Election Guidance for State Servants.  Material has been released in anticipation of elections for almost 20 years, reminding officials of the meaning of political neutrality in the sensitive period when parties are campaigning and aspirants are promoting their candidacy. The scope of the guidance has remained similar although the trend is to increasing specificity.

An interesting comparison is with the advice published by the Scottish Government in the lead up to their Parliamentary election last week. The Scots make it clear that the obligations of political neutrality – of carrying out official duties impartially – applies to all types of civil servants.  As in the UK civil service, there is a “politically restricted” class who may not take part in any political campaign, a “politically free” class who may take part in campaigning, and the intermediate class entitled to take part provided they have no part in policy development in their jobs, they campaign as individuals with no reference to their employment, and they have official permission to do so.

Obligations are different in New Zealand.  State Services Commissioner’s guidance has made it clear that as all State Servants have a right to be politically involved, it is inappropriate for any agency to require that their employees obtain formal permission before supporting a political campaign.

However consultation is encouraged to minimise any conflicts which may impact on the confidence of current or future Ministers in that agency.  The British practice of prohibiting a class of State servants from participating in campaigning seems unacceptably discriminatory.  (Yet in New Zealand, there was a period in the 1920s when public servants were disqualified from political party involvement.)

An area where New Zealand has always shown an ambivalence is the expectation of Ministerial advisers.  Ministerial staff are employees of the Department of Internal Affairs, making them State servants, and subject to the Cabinet Manual requirements to be “fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy”, in the same way as all employees in the State Sector.  But their “day job” is to support the political activities of Ministers and despite being paid to do the work of government, they probably undertake party work in the run up to an election.  In Scotland there is a prohibition.

Special Advisers, the equivalent of Ministerial Advisers in New Zealand, who remain in post during an election campaign “may continue to advise Ministers on Scottish Government policy, but must take particular care not to take any active part in the campaign.”

A  related issue gaining attention in the United States at present is the type of photograph featuring the President, or the Vice President, permitted in federal workplaces.  With President Obama now officially a candidate for reelection, displaying his picture can breach the Hatch Act.  The law prohibits federal buildings, vehicles and uniforms being part of a partisan campaign. Anything other than a formal photo as the Head of State is likely to be unacceptable.