Kāinga Ora found not to have acted politically neutral

The Public Service Commissioner has announced:

The public housing agency, Kāinga Ora, fell short of the standards expected on political neutrality when it published an article about a political candidate, Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes has found.

The Commissioner said Kāinga Ora got it wrong when it considered the principle of political neutrality, which is fundamental in the New Zealand Public Service.

Concerns were raised last year about the conduct of Kāinga Ora officials regarding an article it sponsored on community spirit at its Hobsonville Point development. Kāinga Ora drafted the article in mid-May 2020, for publication on the oneroof.co.nz website on 27 May. The focus of the article was the Hobsonville Point Gets Ready Group, represented by Arena Williams (now a Member of Parliament). The article was published despite Ms Williams advising Kāinga Ora that she was not far away from announcing that she would be standing as a candidate in the 2020 general election. That announcement was made on 29 May.

I blogged on this issue in November. The summary was:

  • Kainga Ora (Housing NZ) signed a contract with NZME to spent $25,000 a month for almost two years in return for stories they would write that would look like news stories.
  • NZME failed to state that this was supplied content, and for many months they appeared without any disclaimer that they were paid for.
  • The Minister of Housing, Megan Woods, denied in a written question that there was any agreement between NZME and Kainga Ora. This was false, and later blamed on a clerical error.
  • One purchased article was in May 2020 and featured Arena Williams (now a Labour MP) and was full of details about what she had done for her community – it appeared three days before the Labour selection for Manurewa.
  • Kainga Ora staff said that they would just pretend not to know she was about to announce her candidacy

The full PSC report is here, and the details show how badly Kainga Ora behaved. They include:

  1. KO staff knew enough to know that continuing with the advertorial with Williams carried risk
  2. KO misunderstood the principle of political neutrality
  3. KO staff did not even consider whether it was ever appropriate for public funds to be used to give positive exposure to a political candidate
  4. KO staff did not escalate to senior management team
  5. KO did not take the advertorial down, after Williams was announced as a candidate
  6. The KO SCA twice said they could pretend they didn’t know she was about to become a candidate and none of her managers or colleagues at the time thought this was inappropriate
  7. Kāinga Ora did not immediately acknowledge and distance itself from the suggestions in the emails that the agency could act as if it didn’t know about the disclosure
  8. Kāinga Ora’s media response to the OIA release ignored the central issues
  9. Kāinga Ora misled in their media response when they said they only became aware of Williams intended candidacy in the latter stages of the writing process, when it was known from the very first conversation with Williams and before anything was written.
  10. The Kāinga Ora media release also misled in attributing the decision to a staff member making a personal call, when it was discussed with four staff or contractors and escalated to a third level general manager.
  11. The KO Chief Executive defended the decision to publish initially
  12. The PSC found there was a pattern of minimisation within KO
  13. The PSC concluded “the sponsored article provided publicity that favoured one political party, just before and during an election period.”
  14. Kāinga Ora maintained a position that minimised the issues and contained some errors about key facts, demonstrated a misunderstanding of the principle of political neutrality at all levels within the organisation, and how it should have operated in this context.

So it is a very thorough and robust report by the Public Service Commission. The question that one has to ask though is how is it possible that no one has lost their job?

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