Relationships in the Civil Service

There is still a huge unresolved issue hanging over the civil service, in terms of will your relationship make you ineligible to keep your job or be promoted.  I have been amazed that the commentators seem to be split 50/50 on whether Setchell’s relationship should have meant she never got the job in the first place.

I very much tend to the point of view that you trust people’s professionalism unless they give you a reason not to. The most famous example of this is Mary Matalin and James Carville who were key strategists for Bush (41) and Clinton in 1992 despite being partners and then married to each other.

Obviously it is a potential conflict of interest for a civil servant if you have a partner who is say a journalist, or works for a political party, or if you yourself are involved in a political party.  That is not the issue.  The issue is how do you mitigate or manage the conflict of interest.

To actually refuse to employ someone because of their relationship is an incredibly extreme measure.  Normally you manage a conflict of interest by making sure it is known and recorded and that the staff member concerned is clearly advised what can and can not be shared with people outside the office.

As I blogged last month, there have been numerous examples in the past of civil servants with a much greater conflict of interest that Setchell had.

I just find it amazing this assumption that one can’t trust a professional not to act unethically.  It actually worries me if Wellington has become so tribal that professionalism is not trusted.

This doesn’t just apply to civil service jobs.  To use myself as an example, I worked for National Leaders for eight years, yet in various capacities I quite often deal with Labour Party Ministers or Green MPs.  Now on the odd occasions in the last two years I’ve been in a Minister’s office and sworn to secrecy over certain issues or thoughts.  And never in a thousand years would I even think of breaking that confidence.  I place great value on integrity and reputation and would never put partisan politics ahead of that.  And I hugely appreciate that certain Ministers have trusted me enough to have a professional relationship with me.

It would be a great pity if a culture of distrust became so prevalent that the civil service, and the wider Wellington networks became Americanised where political loyalty is more relevant than professional conduct.

The great problem the SSC has, apart from dealing with its own credibility, is to provide guidance as to what does or does not constitute a barrier to employment and/or promotion.  If the SSC fail to provide this guidance, then have no doubt that the line will be drawn at where Setchell was – relationships will prevent you from furthering your career, no matter how much personal integrity you have.

And if the line is drawn at being unable to hire someone as a third level manager because of their boyfriend, then I would expect the following classes of people will be unable to gain a senior role in the civil service:

  • Anyone who has ever been a candidate for a political party
  • Anyone who has ever been an office holder in a political party
  • Anyone who has worked in a Minister’s private office (except as a department secondee)
  • Anyone who has worked for a political party, a backbench MP, or a Research Unit
  • Anyone whose partner is employed by a political party

If the Government and the SSC can not clearly state that one’s relationship will not lose you your job in the public service, then the political neutrality will be permanently lessened and scores of not hundreds of civil servants will find their careers stalled or over.

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