19 March 2014

The State Services Commissioner remarked that he saw his role as a guardian of political neutrality across the State services when, last month, he released the updated election-year guidance for agencies and their staff.

His guidance reiterates behavioural expectations promoted before each of the last five general elections. The underpinning message is that officials have political rights and are encouraged to have a lively interest in political matters.  However the requirement is that all State servants keep their jobs out of politics and politics out of their jobs.

“Politically-neutral State Services are a cornerstone of New Zealand’s democratic system – ensuring continuity of government functions regardless of which political parties make up the government.  This includes paying careful attention to managing conflicts or potential conflicts between their roles as State servants and their private interests, including political loyalties, and their interests as employees.

State servants must act with loyalty to the government of the day and to successive governments, and they must work to maintain public confidence in the institutions of government by continuing to demonstrate their commitment to Ministers’ priorities and policies.”

Standards about political neutrality comprise the impartiality principle, one of the foundations of the code of conduct – “We are fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy”.

In Scotland there may be less certainty about impartiality expectations of officials. The UK Public Administration Select Committee has begun an inquiry into the political neutrality of the Civil Service, and compliance with the Civil Service code of conduct in relation to the independence referendum in Scotland.

The Scottish Government Permanent Secretary last year referred to the two-fold responsibilities of civil servants in Scotland:

  • “to deliver the policies of the elected Government of Scotland, which includes delivering the current Scottish Government’s Purpose of creating a more successful country by increasing sustainable economic growth with an opportunity for all of Scotland to flourish; and
  • to act with integrity, impartiality, objectivity and honesty”.

The Select Committee will explore how civil servants in Scotland are meeting those responsibilities in the run-up to the independence referendum, and the more general impact on the wider UK Civil Service.