Politics: The public service’s growing malaise

By Jane Clifton In Politics

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Politics - The public service’s growing malaise

Chris Slane

John Key must be the only prime minister in history who keeps finding peril in the barrel of a teapot. It seems every time he steps into a tearoom, the forces of fear and loathing gather. First the “accidental” teapot tape last election, and now the mystery of the spycam in the Government Communications Security Bureau smoko room.

It would take a George Smiley to get to the bottom of David Shearer’s allegation that Key was filmed quipping to the spies about Kim Dotcom over the teacups at a time when he supposedly knew nothing about the internet buccaneer. But ask not for whom the cups clink: the Labour leader is now in hot water, too, having failed to produce a skerrick of proof and made himself look foolish as he ummed and ahhhed about it in media interviews. By the time the next election campaign begins, the weeks of bickering about when Key didn’t know what about Dotcom, and how he came then to forget it all anyway will certainly have tarnished the PM’s image. At the very least, he has been caught out neglecting the very solemn duty of being the sole political supervisor of our intelligence agencies. But the saga underlines a serious and growing malaise in the public service.

What sort of a country are we running here when first our diplomatic service and then our intelligence agencies quite routinely provide information to the Opposition? Staff were practically jamming the doorways on the way to the photocopier to give Labour’s Phil Goff details of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ chaotic restructuring. And just days after the potentially serious offence committed by at least one intelligence agent who caused information designed to embarrass Key to be conveyed to Shearer, another GCSB staffer slipped details of bureau restructuring and morale problems to a newspaper.

This writer naturally accepts tips from all-comers with a glad cry but very few leakers fit the profile of the noble whistle-blower. Most have an agenda of self-interest that always needs to be borne in mind when documentation embarrassing to a politician falls off the back of a truck – which it does with great frequency. And this is a worry. Public servants are increasingly putting their own political and employment interests ahead of their legal obligation to keep their work confidential and to observe political neutrality. A bloody good thing, too, you may say; stick it to the politicians. Except that at no time did voters ever ask for or express interest in converting to a politicised public service. Routine
leaking has meant, however, that’s what we’ve now got.

The Foreign Affairs information was about work conditions rather than an attack on the Government’s foreign policy. But it was also a vicious internal spat between the back office and diplomatic staff, and was possibly quite as morale-deflating as the restructuring proposals themselves. In the case of the spies, the leak to Shearer was squarely politically motivated. Perhaps I’ve read too much Le Carré, but in Smiley’s world, spies who reveal information to anyone other than the Government to which they report are considered double agents. A loose-lipped spy is not a desirable asset. Even if the spy is only leaking to the Opposition or the media rather than to some terrorist cell, this must surely be the very definition of a slippery slope. What is to stop intelligence and diplomatic staff who have strong personal opinions about, say, the Middle East or US foreign policy, from acting in support of that agenda, too?

The very suggestion is offensive. But the line is ever fuzzier. Witch-hunts are pointless. The current Mfat inquiry must be finding it tougher to identify any staff who did not leak than to discover those who did. Politically, it’s usually better to never officially find out who the culprit was: sackings make martyrs and martyrs make great TV.


The whole process is self-sustaining because it changes according to who is in the Beehive. You won’t catch an Opposition deploring the politicisation of the public service because it’s always in their favour at the time. And the public does deserve transparency. We’re paying for these politicians and officials who have such power over our lives. We should know what dastardliness they’re plotting, early and often. Despite the Official Information Act, it’s still too easy for secrets to be kept. Ministers often trifle with the OIA system, being deliberately late and obfuscatory – and the public’s last resort, the Ombudsman’s office, is over-stretched. A hardy quota of pedants and single-issue zealots overburden the system. Leaks are certainly more efficient. And they have a forbidden fruit glamour factor.

Morale is the root of public sector weather-tightness issues. The bureaucracy is a popular whipping boy, and successive governments have used little tact in various downsizing, restructuring and sinking- lid assaults on it. Public servants are routinely derided for wearing cardigans and walk shorts; those that aren’t “faceless” are “pimply faced”; the rest are Sir Humphreys. It can’t be nice. So maybe it’s time to have an honest debate about a) how politicised the public sector is already and b) how much more politicised we want it to become. Britain, which like us maintains a forlorn nostalgia for a neutral civil service, is furiously debating the rampant proliferation of private advisers to ministers. In the United States, when the Government changes, there is an automatic and unabashed clean-out of the public service, as it is seen as having been – rightly and properly – politically appointed in its entirety.

Somewhere between the two approaches is the place into which we have muddled our way. We presume that communications and political advisory staff in the Beehive are supporters of the government of the day, but private secretaries are assumed to be neutral. In the wider state sector, there have come to be places for obviously politicised public servants like Race Relations Conciliator Joris de Bres, and a new breed of activist department heads, like Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf who express personal policy views. Did we, as voters, mean for any of this to happen? Still, with the advent of Wikileaks, and now the disgracefully incontinent Ministry of Social Development chattily named “kiosks,” the whole privacy issue may be moot. The Privacy Commissioner’s office, which must by now be the only state agency not known to have leaked, may as well surrender. The only sensible question may be, will our future kiosks dispense dangerous tea with our private details and surveillance tapes?


We know John Key is cross with the Government Communications Security Bureau, but did he really need to say the bureau was “notorious for high ethical standards”? Perhaps picking up on the subtlety of this remark, David Shearer in Parliament demanded sternly to know whether the GCSB had undertaken any other “unawful acts!” Key also told us he wanted a booming film industry to attract “the glitterazzi”! Who are these sinister types and do we want them here? He has in the past challenged “allegators” to come forward, so can he be trusted? But from the Be Especially Afraid file, American vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has been among those using the word “demagogue” as a verb. Let’s just hope that at the least none of our MPs tries to demagogue us.

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4 Responses to “Politics: The public service’s growing malaise”

  1. DeepRed Oct 29 2012, 11:36pm

    Dissing the public sector leakers is attacking the symptom. The real issue is the increasingly discredited pseudo-meritocratic Wall Street dogma - Christine Rankin at WINZ was just one example - being foisted on the public sector.
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  2. Watchtower Oct 28 2012, 11:13am

    Your article echoes a debate in Australia about politicisation of their public service. See 'Political staffers aren't killing the public service' (http://tinyurl.com/8wrvsql). That article on The Conversation reviews a book from a recent insider. As the writer says "If you read only one account of the world of apolitical public servants and their relationship with political advisers (admittedly not a substantial oeuvre), read this one."

    Interestingly the book's author "suggests that, contrary to many accounts, that ethos of nonpartisanship survives" in Australia.

    In contrast my observation is that the NZ public service has lost much of its Westminster professionalism, due to the fact it has adopted private sector remuneration and recruitment approaches. Senior bureaucrats are also massively over-remunerated for a country of 4M people. Many are paid more than similar positions in large countries like the US, Canada ans Australia. The lack of a merit-based common entry system means that appointments are increasingly made due to personal connections with recruiters. The lack of common public sector training has also hollowed out the skill base of the lower ranks. This has reduced its ability to change and reform agencies to meet new needs. Forming a new agency shouldn't require every position to be filled again, as this is a major distraction. Australia and Canada don't do this.

    NZ has been on a long run decline for decades and is in the bottom of the OECD rankings in many areas. There is an interesting correlation between this decline and the public sector reforms of the 1980s. The public sector tradition needs to be reinvigorated and restored. This doesn't mean more state ownership, just better independent policy advice from a more professional state sector. When one looks at the successful small countries in the top of the OECD, none of them have engaged in the the extent of public sector experimentation as we have undertaken here - nor have any of the Asian Tiger economies.
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  3. Lloyd Oct 26 2012, 2:17pm

    In what is mostly a well-argued and balanced article, I was disappointed with your comment about Joris de Bres. It reads a little nastily and is hard to see as anything other than a cheap shot which I would have suggested, based on your normally excellent standards, was beneath you.
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  4. Concerned Oct 25 2012, 7:41pm

    It must be awful to be a public servant listening to your minister and know that he/she is lying through their teeth. It's a wonder so public servants are able to remain silent in those circumstances.
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