Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Public servants need to learn their place

The State Services Commission is currently in the process of releasing the latest batch of expense reports from departmental and crown entity CEOs. The release has already turned up some interesting facts - for example that we're paying for Children's Commissioner John Angus to commute from Queenstown to Wellington, and that former Corrections CEO Barry Matthews was unlawfully allowing departmental credit cards to be used for personal spending. But what's scary is that senior public servants revolted against disclosure, and forced the SSC to dilute it:

The State Services Commission was forced to back down on issuing documents of credit-card receipts and declared gifts every three months after an outcry by public service chiefs. They will now be posted every six months. It also raised the value of gifts to $100.

Correspondence issued under the Official Information Act shows 13 chief executives wrote to the commission with concerns, while one Crown entity asked to be exempt. A commission spokeswoman said the request was denied but would not name the entity involved.


State Services head Iain Rennie wrote to 120 chief executives last year after the first release of expenses in August, when many were roasted for lavish spending on hospitality.

An internal memo revealed 38 agencies replied by the November deadline. Five government departments agreed with the plans, six had minor concerns and two had major concerns. Twelve Crown entities were in favour, three had minor and nine major concerns.

Commission senior adviser Mark Holman said "two or three responses come close to suggesting an unwillingness to participate".

These public servants need to learn their place: they work for us, and we are entitled to absolute transparency about how they spend our money. If they are unwilling to operate under those conditions, they should resign. It is that simple.

This is not a new expectation. Its been almost 30 years since the OIA was passed, and promoting the accountability of officials in how they spend public money is one of the purposes of the law. No-one in the public service at any level should have any illusions about that. But we still have senior public servants, some of whom have spent their entire careers in government service (e.g. Transport CEO Martin Matthews, who started out in the Audit Office in 1979) questioning whether we have any right to know how they are spending our money. These people need to get with the program, or they need to leave. But a culture of secrecy among senior public servants can not and should not be tolerated.

If you want to go digging, the expenses data is here.