Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Setchell report

I've spent the last hour reading Don Hunn's Investigation into the public service recruitment and employment of Ms Madeleine Setchell [PDF], and its not a pretty picture. We have not one, but two Departmental Chief Executives who refused to employ Setchell on political grounds after consultation with their Ministers. While officially, the decisions were their own, the fact that they were even asking compromises their independence in employment matters, and the political neutrality of the public service. We also have a Chief Executive of MfE who cravenly refused to stand up for public sector values in the face of a bullying and authoritarian Minister, then impugned the integrity of his employee in an effort to cover his legal arse. Mr Logan is now paying for that, by losing his bonus (about $50,000), but I'm not sure that its enough. Public servants depend on chief executives to stick up for them, and for the public service values which allow them to do their jobs effectively. Hugh Logan has failed in that basic duty.

By contrast, State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble comes out of it looking fairly good, apart from the issue of an inconvenient memory lapse. Unlike Logan, he did stand up firmly for public sector values (it being his job and all). The report's account of the SSC's position (p 17 and 18) makes this clear:

The Commissioner made the following points:
  • the increased emphasis on environmental policy was not the same as close political management of the Minister’s position;
  • if the Government was planning a politically oriented environmental communications programme, the Ministry shouldn’t be doing it: if it wasn’t, it should be possible to find a way to manage the appointment;
  • because the Minister might have expressed certain views the previous evening, was not sufficient reason “to do anything dramatic”;
  • the CE had a role as a good employer and his primary obligation was to concern himself with his employee;
  • it would be most unwise for the CE to manage his subsequent discussions with the Communications Manager so that she felt the need to leave;
  • while Ministers could not interfere with individual employment matters nor tell the CE how he was to manage individual staff members, nevertheless they could say who they were not prepared to work with or to have present at meetings in their offices.

On this latter point the Commissioner elaborated that though the Minister could say who was to be present in his office, the Minister could not require the CE to prevent particular individuals in the Ministry from having certain roles or even accessing certain information. It was the CE’s responsibility to run the department and provide assurances as to confidentiality. If the CE had confidence in the behaviour of individual staff members it was beyond the power of a Minister to control who had what role or how they worked.

The Deputy State Services Commissioner also stood up for the values of the public service, at one point telling Logan that "if the Minister does display concern, just tell him to get over it". Which is what all Chief Executives should be doing. Managing conflicts of interest professionally is their problem, not that of the Minister.

Despite this, Prebble has fined himself (about $10,000) and effectively offered his resignation. In light of the above, I think it would be foolish to accept it.

For those who can't be bothered reading the full report, Audrey Young has a good summary here.