17 November 2014

Chief executives of Public Service departments are employed by the State Services Commissioner.  That relationship preserves the largely apolitical character of appointments and the capacity of chief executives to work with Ministers of any government.  In terms of the State Sector Act, this enables chief executive to be responsible to the Minister for the functions of the agency, without being answerable for those activities to the Minister.

It puts the State Services Commissioner in an unenviable position.  Being the employer of chief executives he has a duty to support and develop them although from time to time the media may be leading a public outcry against an issue of the day in which a department – and for most legal purposes the chief executive is the department – is in the limelight.

And the last few days have provided a snap shot of this small but high profile aspect of the State Services Commission’s role.  Yesterday the State Services Commission published a media statement relating to conduct allegations against a departmental chief executive. As the employer, the State Services Commissioner has a duty to his employee and that requires discrete consideration of the circumstances despite – and in many ways because of – media generated fascination with precipitating allegations.

And earlier in the week several commentators were vocal in demanding the resignation of another chief executive when one case of the many thousands handled weekly by that chief executive’s department, went decidedly pear shaped.

What is interesting is how in the excitement of the moment, the carefully constituted triangular relationship involving the Responsible Minister, the State Services Commissioner and the departmental chief executive gets forgotten by the very people who have the opportunity to ensure public understanding of that special relationship which underpins the strength and character of the New Zealand system.

During the week we had the responsible Minister of a department currently in the spotlight being queried on several occasions about whether he had asked for, or had received, the resignation of his chief executive. It would be somewhat misguided of a chief executive – who is employed by the State Services Commissioner – to resign to a Minister. To do so would manifest a sad lack of awareness among the players of the checks and balances of our system.

And in the report on the SSC website yesterday about the alleged misconduct of a chief executive, the media statement referred to the SSC as the employer – whereas s6 of the State Sector Act, administered by the SSC specifies that it is the State Services Commissioner’s role to appoint leaders of the Public Service, and act as employer of chief executives of departments.