Principles of public service
3.69 New Zealand's public sector is founded on the principles of political neutrality, free and frank advice, merit-based appointments, open government, and stewardship. These principles and agencies' responsibilities are set out in section 12 of the Public Service Act 2020.
3.70 Employees in the public sector act with a spirit of service to the community and must meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, officials must be impartial, accountable, trustworthy, respectful, and responsive.
3.71 The Public Service Commissioner sets minimum standards of integrity and conduct, including in relation to public service values and principles. A code of conduct and related guidance are published on the Public Service Commission's website.
3.72 Political neutrality requires officials to support the government of the day to develop and implement its policies and follow lawful instructions from Ministers to the best of their professional ability and irrespective of their own political opinions. Officials are expected to act in such a way that their agency maintains the confidence of its current Minister and of future Ministers. This principle is central to the public service's ability to serve the government of the day and any future government.
3.73 Ministers must respect the political neutrality of the public service and not ask officials to act in any way that would conflict with their obligation of neutrality. Ministers may ask officials to provide them with factual or analytical material, but should not require them to offer comment or opinion on clearly political topics, such as policies mooted by other parties in Parliament. The Public Service Commission issues advice about political neutrality and integrity and conduct over an election period, including costing political parties' policies, in its pre-election guidance.
3.74 Political advisers have a specific exemption from the political neutrality requirements. Otherwise, they are subject to the same standards of integrity and conduct as other public servants.
3.75 Employees in the public sector, including staff in Ministers' offices, should ensure that their personal interests or activities do not interfere with, or appear to interfere with, their obligation to serve the aims and objectives of their employer. They must seek to avoid situations where there could be a conflict, or the appearance of a conflict, between their personal interests and the interests of their employers.
3.76 Where a conflict or appearance of a conflict cannot be avoided, employees should advise their manager and actively work with their employer to establish processes and practices to deal with the issue appropriately.
3.77 For further information on conflicts of interest, see guidance from the Public Service Commission and the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General.
Free and frank advice
3.78 Advice to Ministers must be free and frank. It should be based on officials' professional opinions and best judgement. Free and frank advice is honest and fearless but should also be responsive to the priorities determined by the government of the day, and be offered with an understanding of the government's political context.
3.79 The provision of free and frank advice allows Ministers to take decisions based on the best available evidence and an appreciation of the expected major benefits, costs, risks, and issues. In the end, it is Ministers who decide on policy and, once a decision is made, the public service should implement that decision as effectively as possible.
3.80 The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Commission issue guidance on how to deliver effective free and frank advice. See the websites of these agencies for further information.
3.81 When making an appointment within the public sector, preference must be given to the person who is best suited to the position, maintaining procedural fairness for all candidates. Further information about making merit-based appointments is on the Public Service Commission website.
3.82 Open government is about transparency, participation, and accountability. It allows the public to understand what government does and why, and hold the government to account. The principle of open government is to encourage and support the involvement of people in democratic processes and the business of government. Openness does not preclude confidentiality. The existing commitments to open government are outlined on the Public Service Commission website.
3.83 Stewardship is a proactive duty to care for resources that belong to or exist for the benefit of others. It involves building the capability and experience to think, plan, and manage with a focus on the long-term interests of citizens. The public service must look ahead to the medium and long term to identify and meet future challenges, and to take opportunities to strengthen the governance and security of New Zealand and its people. The public service also must be able to connect these long-term perspectives with the shorter-term priorities of the government of the day.
Processes for upholding the principles of public service
3.84 The Public Service Commissioner has a mandate to set minimum standards for integrity and conduct for much of the public sector, including public service agencies and most Crown entities.
3.85 These standards are available on the Public Service Commission website. Agencies that the standards apply to must maintain policies and procedures that are consistent with the standard. The Commissioner can vary the standard to reflect the circumstances of particular agencies, or of any people undertaking particular functions in an agency.
3.86 Agencies in the public sector can seek advice and guidance from the Public Service Commission on matters relating to the integrity and conduct of employees. The Commission can advise on:
- compliance with the principles of public service; and
- the interpretation and application of standards, including advice on any particular cases of actual or potential conflict of interest.
3.87 Schedule 3 clause 5 of the Public Service Act 2020 sets out the circumstances under which the Public Service Commissioner may carry out certain statutory functions and powers in relation to parts of the public sector that are not part of the public service (subject to any legislative provision to the contrary).
3.88 In relation to integrity and conduct, the Public Service Commissioner has only the functions and powers for those agencies that are specifically authorised by legislation. A Minister with portfolio responsibility for an agency in the public sector may therefore wish to clarify their expectations with the chair of the board of the agency at the beginning of their relationship. These expectations may include an understanding that the agency will observe appropriate standards of ethics and conduct equivalent to those set out in the standards issued by the Public Service Commissioner (see paragraph 3.85).
Public comment on government policy
3.89 Authorised spokespeople for agencies may publicly explain government policy. Defending or justifying it is the Minister's role. If an official is approached to discuss advice given to a Minister, the “no surprises” principle applies, and ministerial agreement may be needed. Having provided advice that becomes public (such as impact statements or agency briefings), it is usually appropriate for an agency rather than the Minister to take responsibility for responding to questions about the advice tendered. However, if the Minister chooses to comment publicly on the advice, officials should not generally respond to those comments in public.
3.90 Generally, public servants acting in a private capacity have the same rights of free speech and conduct of their private affairs as other members of the public. They should, however, ensure that their personal contribution to public discussion, including any on social media, maintains a level of discretion appropriate to the position they hold. Senior public servants, or those working closely with Ministers, need to exercise particular care.
Public servants' contact with the House of Representatives and political parties
3.91 The select committee is the main parliamentary institution with which public servants have contact. Senior public servants regularly represent the Executive and support the government in terms of the government's accountability to the House of Representatives through select committees. The primary responsibility of officials is to their Ministers when they provide information or advice to select committees. Officials are subject to ministerial direction on answers to be given and information to be supplied to select committees.
3.92 The Public Service Commission and the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives have issued detailed guidance on the relationship between officials and select committees (Officials and Select Committees - Guidelines, available on the Public Service Commission's websiteand Working with Select Committees, on the Parliament website). Officials should consult these guidelines before attending a select committee (either as an adviser or as a witness) or providing information to a select committee.
3.93 The House of Representatives must receive free and frank answers and evidence from those who appear before its committees. Parliamentary proceedings are protected by parliamentary privilege to ensure that those participating in them, including witnesses before select committees, do so without fear of external consequences. Officials from public sector agencies appear before select committees to support ministerial accountability, and their conduct must be consistent with this principle. Therefore, at a minimum, they have an obligation to manage risks and apply a “no surprises” approach in briefing their Ministers.
3.94 See paragraphs 7.112 - 7.126 for information on the role of Ministers in relation to select committees.
Caucus and caucus committees, and members of Parliament
3.95 Ministers may from time to time ask officials to attend a meeting of a caucus committee or caucus, or provide a briefing to a member or members of Parliament, particularly to support Ministers in briefing their colleagues about a current issue or proposed legislation. Requests from other sources for officials to attend caucus or caucus committee meetings, or to brief a member of Parliament, must be relayed through the relevant Minister and should be accepted only with the Minister's agreement. The role of officials at these meetings is to provide factual information only. Officials should not comment on the merits of government or party proposals. See paragraphs 7.30 and 7.60 - 7.63 for information on the role of Ministers in relation to caucus(es) and caucus committees.
Supporting consultation and negotiation between political parties
3.96 Ministers are responsible for consultation and negotiation involving political parties represented in the House. On occasion, Ministers may call on officials to support them in this process. Ministers should instruct their officials clearly on the nature of the contact, and on whether their role is to support a factual briefing or to support a process of consultation and negotiation. Any contact between an official and a representative of a political party should take place only with the prior approval of the official's Minister.
3.97 Special rules apply in the period leading up to and following an election, and particular care should be taken at these times (see chapter 6 and guidance on the Public Service Commission website).
3.98 Information on the coalition and/or support agreements entered into by the parties forming a government is issued from time to time in a Cabinet Office circular. The circular sets out the practical arrangements for implementing any agreement, and provides guidance for Ministers, their staff, and officials on their respective roles and responsibilities in relation to the arrangements.
Private communications with Ministers and members of Parliament
3.99 Officials may communicate with Ministers and members of Parliament about matters affecting them as private citizens. Senior officials or those working closely with Ministers, however, should exercise particular care in doing so. An official is entitled to the same information and level of detail in response to an official information request as any member of the public.
3.100 If an employee wishes to communicate privately with a Minister about a matter concerning the agency by which they are employed, the Minister should ensure that the employee has first raised the matter with the agency's chief executive.
3.101 An employee may wish to disclose a serious wrongdoing in or by an agency under the Protected Disclosures (Protection of Whistleblowers) Act 2022. A Minister may receive such a disclosure under the Act only if the employee has first followed the agency's internal procedures for such disclosures, or has disclosed the matter to the agency's chief executive or to an appropriate authority (as defined in the Act).
3.102 If, an employee having disclosed a serious wrongdoing, the matter has not been resolved to the employee’s satisfaction, the Minister may:
- refer the matter to an appropriate authority or to the Ombudsman for consideration, if the Ombudsman has not already considered the matter; or
- where appropriate, commission an independent investigator to investigate the disclosure on the Minister’s behalf.