A code of conduct for Ministerial staff?

The Press reports:

Massey University’s Dr and Victoria University senior lecturer Dr said they were concerned about the risk of politicising New Zealand’s neutral and expert public service.

Bit too late to be worried only now.

Eichbaum said a significant number of new were about to start work in the Beehive, many of whom had no experience of working within government.

Dr Eichbaum, whom I have blogged on previously, is a former staffer to at least three Labour Ministers, including Helen Clark and has been reported as being a member of the Labour Party for the last 20 years.

They needed a formal induction process with guidance on the rules and conventions governing their relationship with ministers and a code to clarify their role, he said.

“Who’s going to tell them what the rules of the game are and kinds of things they have to be wary of doing like giving direction to public servants, which they don’t have authority to do, or filtering advice which they can’t do?” said Eichbaum.

My suggestion would be to do the opposite of what David Benson Pope’s office did, and they will be fine.

Actually more seriously, the suggestions by the two academics is not at all a bad one. Ministerial staff do have a role not well understood or defined. In theory they are employees of the Department of Internal Affairs and bound by the same code of conduct as all other civil servants. But in reality many of them are operating in a highly political role, and it would be useful to have that role better defined.

The two researchers have actualy published a very interesting paper on the role of Ministerial staff. Their research found the most the most common activities done frequently were:

  • Assist with oral and written questions 97%
  • Convey Minister’s wishes to officials 91%
  • Read advice from officials before passing onto Minister 89%
  • Respond to OIAs 78%
  • Accompany Minister to meetings 78%
  • Meet with PMs Office 69%
  • Broker meetings with Minister and interest groups 66
  • Ask officials for advice on an issue 63%
  • Assist with Budget round 59%
  • Assist with Coalition consultation 59%
  • Meet with officials to develop policy 50%
  • Raise/debate policy with Minister 50%

The full paper is worth a read. Back to the news story:

“Here we have a vital institution, the Beehive, with very important decisions being made and lots of people with very little experience and we are going to leave them to find their own way?”

The tone here is somewhat unfortunate and patronising, and damages what is essentially not a bad idea. Firstly many of the current Opposition staff are highly experienced in Parliament and Government. Secondly I expect a number of former Ministerial staffers from the 1990s will return with their experience. And thirdly not all Ministerial staffers are political and National Ministers will keep on some of the current staff.

Having said all that, some clarity of role in the form of a code of conduct is not a bad thing. Some staff may not realise that every request they make of someone, is treated as a request by the Minister. Any actions they take, will be assumed to be approved by the Minister.

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