Peter Hughes: Can our public service be trusted? Yes


I enjoy reading Heather du Plessis-Allan’s weekend column because she is a journalist not afraid to tackle contentious issues and readers are in no doubt where she stands on an issue.

But she absolutely misses the mark in her latest column.

My argument with du Plessis-Allan is her attack on the neutrality of the public service and the motivations of senior public servants. Du Plessis-Allan says “the entire public service is highly politicised”. That is wrong.

Completely, utterly, totally.

Political neutrality is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s public service. Unlike other countries, ministers in New Zealand are not involved in the hiring and firing of senior public servants.

Chief executives of government agencies are appointed by the Public Service Commissioner following a robust independent process.

That same process is used to select the Commissioner of Police, even if the final call is the Prime Minister’s.

Everyone has their own view on who the best person for a public service chief executive job is. But there is only one group of people with all the information needed to get that right. That is the selection panel.

The public service serves the government of the day regardless of its political colour. Most chief executives serving the current Government were appointed under the previous government. Chief executives need to operate in a political context without becoming part of it, including the Commissioner of Police.

I have no idea what the politics of the current chief executives are. We simply don’t discuss it. Ever.

The Commissioner of Police must exercise constabulary independence. This is the legal requirement for the commissioner to make operational decisions independently.

Would we want our politicians deciding who to arrest and who to prosecute? He must call it as he sees it.

It is in no one’s interest to accuse the Commissioner of Police of political bias. Can and should the commissioner’s decisions be questioned or challenged? Yes. Always.

Should political motives be ascribed to his actions? No. Never.

And the same goes for our public service chief executives. Du Plessis-Allan writes “Much of the dirt that politicians – especially those in government – get on their opponents is directly from their underlings in the public service.”

This is completely untrue. It just doesn’t happen. And it is offensive to suggest that public servants engage in political muckraking.

Du Plessis-Allan also says public servants “know which side their bread is buttered on from election to election and they adapt accordingly”.

Yes, public servants adapt to whoever wins the election. That is the point. They serve the government of the day with the same professionalism and neutrality they did the previous government.

The public service is an easy target for commentators. Journalists are right to question and challenge our work. But it’s not okay to impugn the motives of public servants.

Pretty much without exception, all the people I have met over the course of my career as a public servant have been focused, committed and passionate about making a difference in our country. They, at the very least, deserve our respect.

All journalists know that facts are stubborn things.

It’s a fact that New Zealand’s public service is one of the best in the world. This is no accident.

The New Zealand public service has an enviable international reputation because we uphold long-held public service principles that guide our work: political neutrality, free and frank advice, merit-based appointments, open government and stewardship.

All of the major international measures, and our own local surveys, show high levels of trust and confidence in New Zealand’s public service because of that.

Let’s not pull the house down on top of ourselves.

• Peter Hughes is the Public Service Commissioner.

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