Message for public servants itching to get politically engaged

By Melissa Coade

May 20, 2022

Deborah Glass
Victorian ombud Deborah Glass. (AAP Image/Alex Murray)

Busting to put your political views out there but feeling constrained because of your grey-cardigan status as a public servant? Feeling as though your informed voice should be quieter in the democratic chorus because your need for risk aversion is greater than your need for full-blown participation? 

With one more day of the federal election campaign to go, senior mandarins have underscored how public sector staff can stay impartial but still add their voice to public political discourse.

With just over 24 hours before Australians cast their vote on the next federal government and a state election on the November horizon, the Victorian Public Service Commission (VPSC) has got any mandarin asking these questions covered.

The agency has published two guides, informed by its code of conduct for VPS staff. One is for employees, and the other one is for managers working with employees engaged in election activities. 

Speaking at a virtual event about impartiality in the public service, commissioner Adam Fennessy said it was useful to think of public servants who were politically engaged as an applied example of conflict of interest. 

“The simple answer in a conflict of interest sense is there are things that you can do through your rights or political association and your human rights and freedom of speech as a citizen,” Fennessy said. 

“If you are a public servant, our advice is to be very clear in the separation of what you do as a public servant and what you do as a private citizen.”

With a view to the VPSC guidelines for public servants, Fennessy explained being a bureaucrat necessarily meant behaving in an apolitical manner by law. There should be a clear distinction, therefore, that an individual’s political engagement did not affect or encroach on their role or work for the public. 

“It’s a really important, democratic discussion to have, as well as a discussion about impartiality and conflict of interest for public servants,” Fennessy said. 

The commissioner said the guidelines advised public servants about approaching political activities in the same way they managed ordinary or perceived conflicts of interest. He went on to recommend people keep their political activities outside of work hours, and stay clear of using agency or department resources or workplace facilities. 

“What people do in their private time as a private citizen is something that’s a democratic, right,” Fennessy said. 

“What they do in their public time on public taxpayers’ money as a public servant should be clearly separated.

“You shouldn’t be doing things like developing advertising material for elections, distributing how-to-vote cards on work time, or displaying political material, campaigning on social media as a public servant,” he added.

Some of the relevant statutory rules underpinning this advice include Australia’s constitution, which bans a person who holds an office of the Crown from running for parliament. Victorian state laws permit a public servant to be reinstated in their job should they choose to resign from to run for political office and fail to get elected. 

“It’s quite a detailed set of issues in Australia, because we do have different levels of government,” Fennessy said.

“The caretaker provisions about how we work as impartial public servants in the month before the state election are also subject to very clear conventions and guidelines.”

Victorian ombud Deborah Glass also joined the online panel discussion, hosted by IPAA Victoria on Thursday. 

Responding to a question about whether the reputation and confidence in public servants risked being conflated with the general population’s poor trust rating for politicians, Glass reflected it was a ‘great challenge’. Given the climate of trust in modern-day Australia for institutions, she argued public servants had an important part to play in setting a standard of transparency and accountability.

“Despite the low trust in political leaders, [it is] all the more reason why public servants should be out there being impartial, delivering that professional service, delivering that advice,” Glass said.

“If politicians may not wish to be transparent in their decision-making, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be as a public servant,” she said.

The ombud said citizen experience of Victorian public administration during the pandemic made the case for why better, clearer communication was needed about why and how decisions were being made, and by whom. 

“​​The last few years have been tough for everybody. Decision-making has been incredibly complicated, incredibly difficult, and communicating some of that complexity to the public will lead to greater trust in the public service, regardless of people’s views of our political leaders,” Glass said.

On the issue of building public trust, the commissioner added a mindset shift was needed across the public sector on freedom of information (FOI) matters. He pointed to steps taken by the New Zealand government to ‘walk the walk’ on FOI by moving to publish cabinet decisions, in stark contrast to the approach adopted by Australian lawmakers

“‘Freedom of information’ is often ‘freedom from information’ in terms of our practices,” Fennessy said of the default government attitude to the transparency and accountability mechanism.

“Don’t be scared of transparency. Our parliaments require us to be compliant with FOI legislation, so bring that into your cultural disposition.”


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