Friday, May 10, 2013

A conflict of interest

One of the core requirements on New Zealand public servants is political neutrality. Public servants must be impartial in enacting the policies of the government of the day and not bring their politics into their work. As the guidance on this notes, this is as much about perception and the sensitivities of politicians to dealing with "the enemy" as it is about professionalism:

If we hold a prominent decision-making position in our organisation and take part in high-profile activities that are not directly related to our job, we risk a public perception that we are not able to work in a disinterested, public spirited and politically neutral way. There may be disbelief that we can separate our personal and professional lives. Public trust in our impartiality can be affected. The confidence that the Government or future Ministers have in our organisation can be undermined in the same way. A consequence is that we must always consider the way our actions may be perceived by reasonable observers, and accept that our official responsibilities may place some constraints on the way we exercise our personal freedoms.

For junior public servants, this doesn't matter much. Its a different story with senior ones, however; the need to maintain the confidence of present and future governments effectively rules out any political involvement at all:
We must maintain in our non-working lives the level of political neutrality that is appropriate for the responsibilities we have. Those of us in very senior positions may be required to have a very low level of involvement, perhaps with our interest being discernible only by a visit to a polling station on election day.

The requirement of political neutrality applies to most Crown Entities. So imagine my surprise to learn that Families Commissioner Christine Rankin firstly has been a board member of the Conservative party for the last six months, and secondly that she's just been made its CEO. While Rankin's position is now temporary (her term has expired and is being renewed on a monthly basis), and I have been informed that she will not be reappointed in the next appointment round, these positions are highly inappropriate for a board member of a Crown Entity. They represent a fundamental conflict of interest for someone in her position, and call her - and by extension the Commission's - ability to impartially serve the government of the day into question. She should resign immediately, and be sacked if she does not.