1 July 2011

The New Zealand Public Service when established in 1912 was modelled on the British Civil Service – a merit based, apolitical career service. These characteristics  still give strength to both Services.

The State Sector Act specifies how Public Service appointments must be made. Vacancies must be advertised in a way that will enable suitably qualified people to apply. And the person selected must be best suited for appointment. The Cabinet Manual requires that all employees must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, they must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy. Impartial means politically neutral.

Intriguingly it was only in 2010 that the principles of merit and impartiality in the British Civil Service were established by statute.  A new Civil Service Commission was established to monitor the merit appointment process and to manage complaints under a statutory code of conduct.  A Commissioner for Public Appointments is tasked with ensuring the process remains apolitical.

The two roles now have a joint Commissioner. This watchdog is to audit appointments made since the British election after allegations that the coalition has exploited loopholes that allow ministers to recruit people on short-term contracts without advertising first. The hope is that the audit findings will convince people that government is now largely free of cronyism. This follows allegations that since the election the government has appointed a string of Conservative advisers and ex-staffers into Civil Service posts using expediency rules that allow a few appointments to be exempted from the usual tight recruitment process.

In the first seven months of the coalition, 30 appointments were made without an open competition using short-term contracts. These can be seen as the equivalent of the events based Ministerial adviser positions that support New Zealand ministers.

The joint commissioner is reported as saying that “I don’t mind there being special advisers and I don’t mind there being a few more – at least we know who they are and what they are doing and how they are regulated.”  “Where the anxieties arise is if you get blurring of the lines between the civil service and political advisers and if you get people coming into the civil service who people suspect are political advisers in disguise. That is something that then damages both sides.”

He said that you can never …”relax completely on cronyism and political interference. Particularly on cronyism. There’s a natural tendency in appointment processes for people to want to appoint the people they know and have dealt with. I want to make sure that we challenge that tendency.”

A report published this week recommends major reform to the way ministerial appointments to government jobs are made.