24 August 2011

Scandal linked to the News of the World will not go away. The issue in the British media this week is that when Andy Coulson was working for the Conservative Party as David Cameron’s adviser, he received substantial payments from the newspaper. The report is that Coulson who left as editor of the News of the World six months before taking up the job with David Cameron, began receiving payments totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds from News International on top of his $275,000 civil service salary. Coulson has portrayed these as redundancy payments, but there is public scepticism. The payments had apparently ended by the time of the election, following which Coulson becoming a ministerial adviser.

Similar payments received by a State servant would be considered misconduct. The code of conduct requires that State servants decline benefits that place them under any obligation or perceived influence. This flows from the obligation to avoid actions which may diminish public trust in the State services. It means that State servants must be very careful about accepting any advantage that is not provided by their employer and be aware always of the public perception that can result from accepting favours.

This standard has more general application with regard to gifts and hospitality. But any cash payment under any guise, made to a State servant, because of their role as a State servant, is unlikely ever to be acceptable.

In the United States, civil servants must comply with very prescriptive obligations. This month the compulsory disclosure threshold for reporting of gifts, reimbursements and travel expenses has been amended. The requirement now is to disclose benefits from any one source of “more than $350”; although there is no requirement to disclose items worth “$140 or less”..

In New Zealand, agencies’ policies on accepting benefits, including gifts and hospitality vary. In all cases, the State Services Commissioner’s expectation is that any benefits will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public.