Monday, April 08, 2019

This is not how our public service should work

Our public service is supposed to work for us. While they are directly accountable to the government of the day, they are ultimately accountable to us through Parliament. A key mechanism for this accountability is the annual review process, in which public service chief executives are questioned by Parliamentary select committees. The process relies on public service agencies being open with Parliament. But last week, we saw something unprecedented: a chief executive having to be threatened with contempt in an effort to force her to provide basic information about her agency's performance:

Government Statistician Liz MacPherson is facing contempt of Parliament after being ordered by MPs to produce census information.

In an unusual move, a select committee invoked a standing order compelling Statistics NZ chief executive to produce the number of partial responses were received in Census 2018.

MacPherson was first asked by to provide the answer by the governance and administration select committee during its annual review in February, and again on Wednesday. Both times she declined.

The chief statistician now says she will provide the information – which could further reveal the extent of Census 2018 issues – not on the given April 10 deadline but as part of an announcement promised later in the month.

She can say that, but if she doesn't produce the information by the required deadline, this will go the Privileges Committee, and she will be found guilty of contempt. The actual penalties for that are (sensibly) low - Parliament can fine her $1,000 - but you'd expect there to be severe employment consequences for any public service, and it would seem to constitute just cause to remove them under the State Sector Act. And anything less than an immediate sacking would encourage chief executives to forget who they work for, and to defy Parliament in future.