Friday, December 21, 2007

A very bad report

I've spent some time reading the State Services Commissioner's investigation into the engagement of Clare Curran by the Ministry for the Environment [PDF], and it is a very bad report indeed, in more ways than one. While Erin Leigh's allegations of a political appointment were not substantiated, the report harshly criticises the Ministry for the Environment for failing to use a proper tender process for the appointment, and for failing to properly identify and manage the potential conflicts of interest arising from the manner of Ms Curran's appointment (at the same time, it is also clear that Ms Curran did not bring her politics into her work, as the National Party has tried hard to imply; she behaved professionally. The failing was on the part of MfE in not ensuring that the appointment was seen to be on merit, and in failing to quash rumours that Curran was a political appointee). Given this, it is no surprise that MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan decided to resign. He had failed to properly manage his Ministry, and failed to ensure that the values of the public service were upheld. For that, his head had to roll.

However, there's another sense in which it is a bad report, and that is that it exonerates Climate Change Minister David Parker for his grossly improper suggestion that Curran be hired, and takes the position that it is perfectly acceptable for Ministers to intervene in employment decisions in this way. It is not. Our public service is founded on two principles: political neutrality and appointment on merit. In order to protect these principles, Departmental Chief Executives are legally required to be independent in their employment decisions. While a Minister has no formal power to hire and fire, the need to maintain a good working relationship means that even a suggestion can compromise this independence, and ultimately the values of the public service itself. And that applies even to apparently innocent and well-intentioned suggestions like Parker's. For everyone's sake - their own, their chief executive's, the poor employee who ends up being tarred as a political appointee's, and the public's, whose faith in the public service is undermined - it is better that they simply not make such suggestions at all.