25 July 2011

Central agencies are not always held in high regard by other parts of the State sector. A common refrain is their expectation that others must “do as we say not as we do”.  Nothing new of course; Giovanni Boccaccio made that observation about officials in 14th century Italy.  Standard setting agencies, like parents, are susceptible to allegations of hypocrisy.  Last week Treasury became the first New Zealand agency to publish on the web, the register of staff receiving gifts and hospitality which all agencies are meant to keep. This act of web publishing deserves recognition.

The gifts and hospitality information was released in response to a request under the Official Information Act. But unlike Australia where disclosed information must now be web published within 10 days of release, few New Zealand agencies regard an information request as an indication that the material released is of general public interest and make it readily available. The Treasury, for whatever motive, has now published the register as a page on its website. This conforms to the State Services Commissioner’s guidance in Understanding the code of conduct.  SSC however doesn’t follow its own rule!

There will usually be perceptions of influence or personal benefit if we accept gifts, hospitality or ‘quid pro quo’ exchanges of favours. We must not seek or accept favours from anyone, or on behalf of anyone, who could benefit from influencing us or our organisation. Organisations’ policies on accepting gifts and hospitality vary, depending on their business. In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public.”

On that basis, there shouldn’t be many entries on the Treasury register. In fact as the media has commented, there is a remarkable pattern of favours.  The declared gifts and hospitality are provided by people who could readily be perceived as likely to benefit from influencing official decisions. The beneficiaries are senior officials responsible for making decisions.

And of course every disclosure on the register breaches the directions of the Auditor General. The relevant standard in the code of conduct for all State servants is that “we must not accept any gift or benefit that places us under any obligation or perceived influence”.  The State Services Commissioner’s guidance on how any acceptance is to be managed, builds on the Auditor General’s direction in Controlling Sensitive Expenditure  which states that:

“We expect entities to …allow staff to personally acquire only infrequent and inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers and clients (for example, pens, badges, and calendars).”

The State Services Commissioner may be seen to have modified the Auditor General’s expectation when he wrote to agency chief executives setting out how he required them to disclose their personal acceptance of gifts and hospitality.  Whereas the Auditor General limits the acceptability to “inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers”, the Commissioner, less restrictively, requires gifts of more than token value to be declared.

Openness is fundamental to good government.  The Treasury is to be complimented for opening up its gifts and hospitality register.  With the content disclosed, the justification for disregarding OAG and SSC expectations can be explored. Now the Treasury should consider whether its practices reflect the standards that the New Zealand public expects of trustworthy officials.

Rethink Online, the e-government strategy published earlier this month notes that there are more than 600 agency websites in New Zealand.  Can we look forward to 600 agencies now publishing their gifts and hospitality registers, following in the footsteps of the Treasury?