Monday, April 11, 2005

Politicising the public service

Don Brash has attacked the Police Commissioner for implementing the government's policy agenda. What would he prefer they do? Dig their heels in and say "no, we're not going to do this"?

Actually, he probably would. Which simply shows how short-sighted Brash has become in his pursuit of power.

In this country we have a neutral and professional public service. What this means is that politicians set policy and public servants - like the Police Commissioner - implement it. We do this for the simple reason that politicians are elected, while public servants are not.

If public servants are confronted with a policy agenda they believe is flawed, then it is their duty to advocate against it. But they must also accept that it is ultimately a decision for the Minister, and if they insist, public servants must obey. This is known in the trade as "swallowing dead rats". If someone cannot do that, then they have no place in the public service.

By demanding that the Police Commisioner criticise his Minister - and threatening their job if they do not - Don Brash is promoting a politicised public service, one which openly takes sides and backs a particular party. This would be a death-knell for professionalism, and the tradition of free and frank advice, and the result would be a public service staffed by party hacks and blinded by ideology, where promotion above a certain level depended on political compatibility with the government of the day, and whose management was purged with every change of government. It would also invite similar open criticism and subversion of his policy decisions if he should ever gain power. As someone who imagines himself Prime Minister one day, Brash ought to be aware of this; the fact that he has gone ahead anyway and demanded that public servants politicise themselves simply shows that he is completely unsuitable for the job.


I agree; he's started down a dangerous path, but that just reflects his lack of experience and understanding of the process of government. I've rambled on about it on my blog at

Posted by Anonymous : 4/12/2005 08:21:00 AM

I don't agree. If the police commissioner keeps his mouth shut, the opposition should leave him alone. But when he goes on TV and makes statements backing up government policy then he becomes fair game.

You don't see the Secretary of Education going on TV and talking about the NCEA debacle or the TWOA corruption.

I agree it's a problem when civil servants come under attack, but Rob Robinson started it by publicly promoting Labour policies, and you can't expect the opposition to let that go unchallenged in an election year.

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 4/12/2005 08:59:00 AM

The Nats have always politicised the public service - look at the way Treasury dominates it. IMHO, the bureaucrats have got the Labour by the short and curlies, which is why we will never see social justice here.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/13/2005 12:15:00 PM