Like many others, I have been reflecting on the subject of political neutrality and the role it plays in the effectiveness of the public service. Ordinarily the domain of the public-management geeks, political neutrality has recently been headlining in all forms of mainstream media. The coverage has been both fascinating and frustrating.
Political neutrality is part of a system designed to underpin democratic government. Public servants exist to serve the government of the day regardless of its political hue. We work for the minister of the day but are not employed by them. Unlike ministers, we are not elected. We choose to serve the public of New Zealand by supporting their democratically elected representatives to make well-informed decisions and by implementing their policies and programmes to the best of our ability.
One of the things I found concerning about the media debate was the association of political neutrality with “blandness”, “not having a personality”, or a lack of willingness to “speak up” or challenge the status quo.
But it is political neutrality that helps create the conditions for public servants, and people who work for Crown entities, to provide free and frank advice and “speak truth to power”. Political neutrality allows public servants to develop trusted professional relationships with successive ministers and the longevity to develop expertise in their field. Like all humans, it is far easier for ministers to consider evidence and options and change their minds (where this is appropriate) if the conversations take place in the context of a trusted relationship.
One has only to look across the Tasman to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme to see what can happen when a public service loses some of its political neutrality and, with it, its ability to provide free, frank, and fearless advice. In Australia, it is not uncommon for at least the top two layers of the public service to change when there is a new government. This completely changes the incentives at play and can encourage “group think” or what Andrew Podger, a former Australian Public Service Commissioner, described in his report as “excessive responsiveness”.
New Zealand has the last politically neutral public service in the Westminister system. Is it perfect? No. But like the huge block of pounamu at Te Papa, Our Place, it is a taonga that we should keep polishing until we can all see ourselves in it. Tātou tātou.