The perspective depends on where you stand

25 August 2011

 We take for granted those things we are used to. It may be axiomatic, but what we consider ordinary, others consider extraordinary.

What is surprising for an audience of New Zealand officials is to hear an American public sector specialist list as admirable and unusual, practices in place in New Zealand throughout their working lives.

Jonathan Karp, an analyst with the Securities and Exchange Commission is an Ian Axford Fellow who has spent a year attached to the Securities Commission and the Companies Office. Yesterday he presented his observations to a Wellington audience. He has studied information availability and disclosure procedures of these market regulators.

His paper, “Can the US import ‘sunlight’ from NZ? An assessment of NZ’s model for corporate disclosures” explores the superiority he perceives of NZ processes over those of the SEC. Karp is impressed by the NZ framework for a”clearly missioned, transparently resourced, technologically advanced disclosure operation”. He suggests that the SEC should consider approaches based on the NZ model.

‘Sunlight as the best of disinfectants’ was the transparency metaphor of Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court almost a century ago. It seems almost like carrying coals to Newcastle that NZ practices should now be advocated as the tool to open up the SEC, that quintessential US regulator, at the heart of capitalism.

New Zealand rubbing shoulders with Scandinavia again

22 November 2021

The World Values Survey has published conclusions from more of the data gathered in its 2019-20 questionnaire. The Survey has been through seven “waves” since its 1980s beginnings.  Ronald Inglehart, a renown American political scientist who was a co-founder of the WVS and co-producer of Inglehart – Welzel cultural map (a scatter-plot depiction of a number of the survey findings), died in May 2021.

The New Zealand contribution has been contemporaneously published by Paul Perry (with Polly Yeung) as Keeping New Zealand in the World Values Survey, A Brief Project History and Selected New Zealand Social Trends from the World’s Largest Non-Commercial Social Survey  in the Aotearoa New Zealand Journal of Social Issues.  Perry (with Massey University colleagues) has perpetuated the New Zealand involvement through numerous WVS “waves”, and increasingly through a sense of responsibility, not for any fiscal advantage!

Trends that emerged from the observations of the approximately 4000 New Zealand respondents are listed in the following extract from one of the 18 Tables;

Some Broad Trends Over Time from the World Values Survey in New Zealand

  1. Strongly Declining Religiosity on many indicators
  2. Increasing Agreement that “Most people can be trusted”
  3. Generally Increasing Support for the Environment and Related Issues
  4. Increasing Social Tolerance
  5. Decline in Active Membership in Certain Types of Voluntary Organisations
  6. Increasing Support for Gender Equality
  7. Increasing Value Placed on the Treaty of Waitangi
  8. Confidence in Certain Institutions
  9. For future society, increasing support for it being a good thing if there was less importance placed on work in our lives
  10. Declines in use of Traditional Sources of News about country and world
  11. A modest leftward shift politically
  12. Increase in support for tighter government regulation of big companies and multinationals
  13. Decline in blaming the individual for their poverty.
  14. Decline in willingness to fight for your country, in case of war.

New Zealanders are showing increasing social tolerance, illustrated by responses to queries about having, as neighbours;

  • Homosexuals
  • People with Aids
  • People who are Emotionally Unstable
  • Maori
  • Pacifica
  • People Speaking a Different Language

And on morality issues; 

  • Homosexuality
  • Abortion
  • Divorce
  • Suicide
  • Prostitution 
  • Pre-Marital Sex 
  • Euthanasia

New Zealanders are depicted as being almost Scandinavian in their perspective, distanced from most of our APEC partners, and to a lesser extent Australia and the United Kingdom, as indicated in the Cultural Map 2020. Perhaps it is because we think and see things from nearly a Scandinavian point of view that New Zealand rates closely to that high performing cohort in many of the international surveys where trust and integrity underpin the aspired outcome.

Are departmental chief executives a constitutional check on Government?

16 July 2012

The House of Lords Constitution Committee inquiry on the Accountability of Civil Servants has heard some memorable contributions from informed commentators, ranging from former Ministers to academics. Four former Cabinet Secretaries were the witnesses last week.  Ths week, witnesses include the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the incumbents in the offices of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service.

The transcripts of evidence published so far are a great read (about four hours of it!).

Issues addressed extend beyond accountability to encompass appointments of permanent secretaries and the role of political advisers. One interesting aspect is whether the civil service has a constitutional role as a check on the Government. There is a suggestion in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 which gave statutory form to the civil service, that there is a responsibility although as yet undefined.

Section 3 (6) “In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.”

The evidence given by Charles Clarke, a former Home Secretary – (and incidentally son of the originator of the FT share index and later a civil service permanent secretary) –is a perspective probably regarded in New Zealand more as an obligation on chief executives to ensure Ministers act lawfully than a constitutional check.  We have a weaker line of authority, derived possibly from the obligation in the State Sector Act to maintain standards of integrity and conduct.

Charles Clarke:  … In answer to your question, the home civil service absolutely does and should act as a constitutional check on the actions of Ministers. That is precisely what they ought to do.

However, everything depends on the relationship between  the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State, as I said at the outset. The permanent secretary has to be strong enough to say to a possibly very strong Minister, “You cannot do this, Secretary of State”. To be honest, I do not think that all permanent secretaries are strong enough to do that. There are occasions when Ministers will try to override their permanent secretaries, and that is a serious criticism of a permanent secretary.

Secondly, I used to encourage…all civil servants, even as many as would be round a table of this size, to give me their opinion about what I was proposing. I would say that the sanctionable offence would be not to tell me that I was about to do something mad before I found out by another route. It was then my job to take the decisions. If somebody said, “You are mad to do this for the following reasons”, I might say, “Well actually I am still going to go ahead and be mad”, and that was a matter for me. It was my decision.

It was the duty—I emphasise the duty—of officials to say to me, “You have to operate in this way and understand these circumstances.” I understand that there are other Ministers who do not operate in that way. They essentially do not want their civil servants to give their views and do not want to be contradicted.

I am sure that Michael, (another witness,  Lord Howard, also a Home Secretary ) having his personality, would have been similar in his approach in wanting people to be quite candid. I did not mind if officials said that I was doing completely the wrong thing, because I was confident enough to deal with the arguments that they put forward and come to a view about how to proceed.  Having said that, you have a series of difficult issues if the civil servants are not strong, and if in particular the permanent secretary is not, in relation to the Secretary of State.

That leads to a very difficult set of issues. You used in your question the phrase “constitutional check”. That becomes a very critical question when you talk about quasi-judicial roles played by Ministers, or proprieties, for example in relation to allocation of moneys including to your own constituencies and issues of that kind, where the civil service has to be absolutely a stickler for the position—and should be.

That is one of the reasons why I find the current position in relation to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport completely inexplicable. In the current circumstances, it does not appear that the permanent secretary acted as he should have done. It is a constitutional check. It should be a key culture of the civil service to be that constitutional check.

Now, some politicians do not like that. We see it in the papers all the time at the moment that certain politicians argue that you do not want civil servants who are a constitutional check. I take exactly the opposite view: it is critical that they are a constitutional check as long as, at the end of the day, the right of the Minister to take the decision is acknowledged and recognised.

I think that in practice that is the case. All civil servants I know accept that if the Secretary of State wants to take a decision, then that is what they should do.”

The Constitution Committee has been teasing out views on what should subsequently happen regarding responsibility and accountability, when several years later, a policy fails and both Minister and the departmental head have moved elsewhere. What is the difference between being accountable and being responsible?