23 July 2012

The Better Public Services proposals for improving New Zealand public administration include a number of issues that have been the subject of evidence given recently to the House of Lords Constitution Committee reviewing civil service accountability.

The role and responsibilities of special advisers have been considered at each of the evidence sessions over the last six weeks. The extraordinary role of special advisers is well recognised at Westminster, where appointees do not purport to be departmental officials as is the case with ministerial advisers in New Zealand. Special advisers have their own appointment process , lines of responsibility and special advisers’ code of conduct.

In Britain special advisers are temporary civil servants.  In New Zealand there is no alternative to them being a departmental employee like any other public servant, and therefore subject to the code of conduct common to all public servants. The effect of law is that they must conduct themselves in a politically neutral way, although this must be more honoured in the breach than the observance!

In this regard, Eichbaum and Shaw have commented about ‘the barbarians at the gate’. And New Zealand, seems to have gone overboard in the number of Ministerial advisers compared with the British practice.  The Better Public Services Cabinet Paper No 6 on Amendments to the State Sector Act discusses the position of ministerial advisers (para 48 – 53).  There are 151 of them.  This is many more than the number (85) supporting all British ministers. ( Canada and Australia have very many more.)

The Cabinet Paper outlines statutory changes giving effect , to a large degree, to the de facto position. Special provisions would be introduced for ministerial staff, and their selection would take into account the preferences of the Minister they would be supporting. The State Services Commissioner would be empowered to develop a code of conduct with variations to reflect the political responsibilities of ministerial advisers.

Ironically some evidence to the Constitution Committee is that changes should be made also to arrangements for special advisers at Westminster.  Suggestions were that there were too many special advisers, that “many were no more than glorified press officers, and political press officers at that”. 

Professor Lord Hennessy’s evidence was that there should be two categories of special adviser—“those who really know something, can help test out what the machine is producing and what the think tanks are producing and have a background and self confidence to do that”. He said that he didn’t “want to be unkind to the British political class, but it has often been a mystery to me why they want the other sort, in their early 20s, to be the bag-carriers and so on.  The one quality that the political class is not short of is political prejudice, and there is no need to bring in young men and women with political science degrees to reinforce your existing prejudices. I suggest you go for two categories of special adviser – those who know and those who believe.  If we have to cull the 85, which is far too many, those who believe should be ruthlessly culled.”