Election season in the Public Sector: Navigating the pre- and post-election periods

Laura Sahng and Georgina Lomax-Sawyers from Russell McVeagh summarise the main points from a recent election season event, run by the IPANZ New Professionals Leadership Team.

This August event discussed the roles and responsibilities of those in the public sector before and after the general election, to be held on 14 October 2023. The panel comprised esteemed guests: Secretary of the Cabinet and Clerk of the Executive Council, Rachel Hayward; Chief Adviser at Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission, Kate Salmond; and Managing Principal at MartinJenkins, Andrew Horwood.


The Government retains the right to govern until polling day (14 October 2023). Contrary to common myth, there is no pre-election ‘caretaker’ period. That said, successive governments have chosen to exercise voluntary restraint in two main areas during the pre-election period (the three months before the election – this year from 14 July 2023 onwards):

  • Significant appointments that will commence in the pre-election period. What is considered ‘significant’ is a matter of judgement. Appointments need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. This would include considering factors such as the organisation’s profile, strategic and decision-making role, control of assets or funds, and whether it is an executive body (versus technical or advisory). There is no blanket ban on such appointments, but the way each appointment is managed should be carefully considered.
  • Government advertising. Advertising is subject to greater scrutiny during election season, and there may be a heightened risk of a perception that funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes.

Cabinet Office Circular CO (23) 1 - Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period provides more guidance on these issues.

In respect of process, the House of Representatives will adjourn on 31 August 2023, with a proclamation dissolving the 53rd Parliament on 8 September 2023. The dissolution of Parliament is a critical milestone in the general election process. Within seven days, the Governor-General must issue the writ requiring the Electoral Commission to make the arrangements for the conduct of the general election. 

Caretaker convention

After the election, and until the Governor-General appoints a new government, successive governments have adhered to the caretaker convention. Incumbent ministers remain in office with their warrants while political parties conduct negotiations to form a new government that can command a majority in the House of Representatives. The caretaker convention has two limbs:

  • Unclear outcome. If it is not clear which party or parties will form the next government, then the caretaker government should not be introducing significant policies or making big decisions that are difficult to reverse.
  • Clear outcome. If it is clear who will form the next government, but that government has not yet taken office, the outgoing government acts on the advice of the incoming government on any matters of such significance that they cannot be delayed until the new government formally takes office.

The Cabinet Manual sets out the caretaker convention in chapter 6, and the Cabinet Office will issue a Circular before the election, setting out more detailed guidance.

Keep your politics out of your job, and your job out of your politics

Our speakers emphasised that political neutrality is vital for public sector workers at all times, but especially in the heightened sensitivity of an election year. The concept of a politically neutral public service has existed in Aotearoa New Zealand for over 100 years and is now enshrined as a public service principle in the Public Service Act 2020. (For more on this topic, go to Chris Eichbaum’s article on page 3 of this issue.)

Political neutrality ensures that public servants can support the government of the day, irrespective of their personal political views. It also protects the ability of the public service to serve any future government equally well. Public servants do not change with a change of government, so it is important that the current government, future governments, and the public continue to trust in the public service and its ability to provide advice, implement the policies of elected ministers, and deliver services for New Zealanders.

Personal political activities should be kept separate and outside of the work context. This recognises that agency funds and resources should not be used for party political purposes. When assessing any potential conflict that may arise, it is useful to consider the nature and seniority of a public servant’s role at their agency and the scope and scale of their personal political activity outside of work. Public servants should exercise caution with social media use, particularly taking care to ensure personal political opinions cannot be perceived as comment on behalf of their public sector workplace.

Te Kawa Mataaho provides a lot of election-year guidance for public servants to assist them with navigating this period.

Workflow during the election period

While public service work does not stop during an election, the tempo and rhythm of their business may change. Cabinet and Cabinet committees meet less frequently, and ministers will be involved in the election campaign. 

This is an important time for agencies to plan and prioritise work, and it can also be a pivotal opportunity to start preparing information and advice for a new minister. Many public servants will be involved in briefing incoming ministers. Agencies and Crown entities provide information such as the purpose of the portfolio, key business units and responsibilities, appropriation and budget, and relevant legislation and priorities.

Observations from outside central government

Our speakers also explained how this pre- and post-election period can be difficult for stakeholders outside of government, as they may seek to push through a change before the election that is crucial to their industry but is not a government priority. During this time, engaging with stakeholders is critical, and explaining why things may be slowing down ahead of the election. It is also essential to explain this to appointees concerned about their appointment taking longer.

Thank you to all our attendees for your engagement, and again to our speakers for sharing their expertise and experiences.

Tips and other musings

  • Be aware of political party language – phrases commonly used by a government may have naturally become a part of your everyday speech. This could be seen as political if a new government does not use this language.
  • Official Information Act and other information requests continue as usual.
  • ‘Play it with a straight bat’ – be cautious about how the public may perceive your words and actions, even in a personal capacity. Think about the forum and audience, don’t sign up to party political newsletters with a work email, and be conscious of your social media following.
  • Your role in the public service matters – everyone is subject to the same rules, but depending on your role, you may attract greater public scrutiny.
  • Remember that potential issues also occur in an employment context.
  • You are not alone – there is a lot of guidance out there (see Te Kawa Mataaho’s general election guidance), and you can always escalate anything if you are unsure.

This article was published in the Public Sector Journal - Spring 2023, Issue 46.3.