New Zealand’s Iain Rennie responds to accusations that officials failed to act impartially

By on 07/01/2016
New Zealand’s civil service chief, Iain Rennie leaves his post in at the end of June.

New Zealand’s top civil servant has called on all government agencies to ensure that “staff understand their obligation to be impartial – and are seen to be impartial – in all aspects of their conduct”, following a complaint about public servants’ conduct by an MP.

Labour MP Kris Faafoi complained that officials at Housing New Zealand (Housing NZ) – a government agency – had allowed National Party MP Parmjeet Parmar to use a state-funded housing roadshow to further her political goals.

In an email to Housing NZ, the private secretary to building and housing minister Nick Smith – also a National Party member, said that Parmjeet Parmar had “expressed a strong interest in hosting a roadshow as she is keen to raise local profile in [the Mt Roskill constituency] in case of a by-election.”

Parmar was a supporting MP at the roadshow, which took place in June 2015 and cost Housing NZ $460 (US$ 304).

Faafoi said Parmar should not have been allowed to attend the event because of the openly political reasons for which she wanted to be involved.

“It crosses the line from being an advocate to being out there basically to promote yourself and for votes,” he said.

State service commissioner Iain Rennie, who conducted an investigation into the complaint, said that while he has “not identified deliberate bias or inappropriate allocation of government resources in support of party political activity”, he found that “there was an uncomfortable blurring of lines between the appropriate roles of a state services agency, the office of the minister and government MPs, in relation to Housing NZ’s involvement in the organisation and running of the roadshows.”

In a statement released just before Christmas, he said he considered “that these errors were due to failures of judgement, and a misunderstanding of the appropriate boundaries of roles.”

Rennie concluded that “these findings are a reminder to all government agencies of the need to ensure staff understand the appropriate boundaries and their obligation to ensure they are impartial – and are seen to be impartial – in all aspects of their conduct.”

Rennie said that “a government event hosted by the minister to present unbiased and objective information about the implementation of government policy, supported by a state services agency, and attended by local MPs, is entirely uncontroversial” and that “an event organised and hosted by a state services agency, attended by the minister, and local dignitaries such as MPs is entirely appropriate.”

However, he added that Housing NZ should have sought greater clarity about the role of the government MP at the event, and should have been more attune to the risk that the organisation could come across as failing to act impartially by allowing a government MP to ‘host’ the event.

“There are clear expectations of State servants set out in the Standards of Integrity and Conduct, in terms of remaining politically impartial,” he said.

“These standards ensure that the State services can support both current and future governments, and are a critical part of maintaining public trust and confidence in our system of public administration.

“Any complaints about behaviour by State servants or agencies that does not meet the Standards of Integrity and Conduct are something I take seriously.”

The chief executives of both, Housing NZ and Nick Smith’s office, have said that they accept these findings and will look at internal processes to ensure their staff understand the risks of perceived inappropriate behaviour to themselves, ministers, and their agencies, and can be helped to manage the boundaries appropriately.

Overall, the commission is confident that “any blurring of boundaries that occurred due to the suggestion that the events be ‘hosted’ locally by the government MP was not intentional.”

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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