8 October 2011

The only surprising thing about media statements yesterday by State Services Commissioner and the Treasury, is the time they have taken.  The Commissioner criticised integrity attitudes in some agencies, and the Treasury, in confessional mode, has committed to abiding by (some) standards that have always been expected of people working in New Zealand’s State sector. Encouraging, but sad that staff in an agency with leadership responsibilities could have considered that in some way they are exempt from expectations long specified by Auditors General, State Services Commissioners, and the Cabinet Manual.

The Auditor General is very specific about declining gifts and benefits valued in excess of $20. And networking is not a justification for ignoring the Commissioner’s  guidance about his code,  that “receiving hospitality is usually inappropriate if it extends beyond courtesy.”

The Deloitte involvement in Treasury’s handling of ethics issues could have been avoided.  Following the 2010 State Services integrity survey, the Commissioner recommended actions to be followed by all agencies. The Treasury experience shows poor regard for those recommendations.  Having now paid for the Deloitte advice, integrity may be better valued.

A comparison with United States Federal Government obligations is interesting.  Hospitality is closely prescribed. Benefits must be valued at less than $20, with tight specification of whether that includes coffee, tax, tips etc.  But the provision is under review.  The Office of Government Ethics proposes to eliminate this access opportunity for lobbyists. The Washington Post reported that the proposals have been attacked by lobbyists. This seems to support the logic that profit-motivated business would not spend on officials unless there was  a commercial advantage. The implication is that officials accepting hospitality are disingenuous or disturbingly naive.

As the State Services Commissioner’s guidance notes, “in all matters of integrity, exercising judgement is essential.”