Are ministerial staff untamable? Peter Hughes’ creative solution allowing political advisers to do their politics while respecting neutrality of public servants

By Peter Debus

Friday November 8, 2019

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New Zealand’s Ardern government is undertaking once-in-a-generation reform to create a modern, agile, and adaptive public service, and affirm the constitutional role of the public service in supporting New Zealand’s democratic form of government.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes sat down with The Mandarin’s Peter Debus to talk about the evolution of public sector reform, how it will build on past innovations, and what it means to have ‘a spirit of service’.

Click here for more from this interview.

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How do you deal with political advisors?

We have them in New Zealand, and we have the same set of issues around them. In New Zealand, they’re public servants and they’re employed by the Department of Internal Affairs, but they’re basically moved to ministers.

As commissioner, I have the ability to issue codes of conduct. So, I issued a code of conduct for political advisors, in which I took the political neutrality requirement out and replaced it with a requirement that said, ‘you have to respect the political neutrality of public servants; you have to respect the duty of free and frank advice’, because I wanted to assert those things for the workforce.

It was a hard thing to do at the time, but, otherwise, you’ve got basically a workforce that had just developed in relation to a need. There was no structure around it at all, no expectation, and the feedback has been they found that quite useful.

In our system, of course, they’re covered by the Members of Parliament Act; therefore it’s quite hard to get them to actually sit in a room and take any induction or training about those very important demarcations between public servants and them.

If you’re looking at risks to political neutrality, for example, and if you talk to people here and in New Zealand, they will talk about political advisors. Mostly about political advisors — and sometimes about ministers but actually mostly about political advisors. Because political advisors are singularly focused on the politics, whereas ministers are looking at policy in a political context.

So if we want to do something about it, we’ve got to work with that group.

Peter Hughes (left) and Peter Debus (right).

We would ask public sector CEOs to rank the things that most concerned them, and always at number one, year-after-year-after-year, was ‘relationships with ministers’, and particularly ministers’ offices.

Secretaries and senior public servants need to take responsibility as well. Giving free and frank advice is not lobbing something into the political centre and running for cover. I mean, there’s a whole art to it, and craft to it. It needs to be done in a smart, nuanced, deft way, because it needs to be done.

We’ve also got a Head of the Policy Profession in New Zealand, which I appointment. In our system, I have appointed the head of Department of Premier and Cabinet as the Head of the Policy Profession, while I’m the Head of the Public Service, not them. So that’s different. They lead a whole-of-system in and around policy advice, including free and frank advice and what good practice looks like. There are guidelines for how you do it, how do you tell them? How do you tell a minister who doesn’t want to hear something?

Watch for more from the Mandarin Premium interview with NZ State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes next week.

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