6 April 2014

In the UK, now a month out from a general election, the civil service has begun operating under pre-election constraints.  The Government has gone into purdah!  As in New Zealand, the expectation of officials is that in the lead up to an election they avoid any activity that could question their political neutrality and that agencies’ resources are not used for party political purposes.

The somewhat questionable use of purdah to describe the separation of political process from public administration during an election period no doubt reflects imperial influences on the civil service.  (When Britain managed its empire, colonial administrators were part of the civil service in the colony where they served and were only indirectly part of the Colonial Service which like the Foreign Office was not part of the UK civil service.)

Purdah in Urdu and Persian is the word for curtain and is used to describe the custom of screening women from men.  In election terms it is the screening officials from activities which could be seen as helping a political party. It also involves suspending initiatives which could be seen as politically contentious or making major decisions which with minimal impact can be postponed until there is a mandate following the election

Election guidance for civil servants has some content similar to the guidance issued by the State Services Commissioner for the last 20 years before New Zealand general elections, and some notable differences. These include concerns in the UK about providing briefings to Ministers during the election period, the use of statistics, census and survey data to support public communications in the election period, and ensuring that Ministers do not use departmental letterhead where they have added political content to correspondence prepared in departments.

Guidelines on costing party political policies and preparing briefings for incoming Ministers which form appendices to the New Zealand election guidance don’t form part of the UK version.

The guidance for civil servants notes that it doesn’t apply to officials working in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. Those civil servants owe loyalty to the devolved administrations.

And that point has pertinence today, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, the 1320 affirmation of Scottish independence from England, sent to the Pope of the day.

 “….For, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself…”