When political opinion is not okay (aka: dumb and dumber)

TVNZ's threat to the privacy of its employees rekindled an important debate about the boundary between work and politics – even more relevant now that an election has been called.

A person’s political leanings have always been a personal matter and they should stay that way as long as they don’t impact inappropriately on their job. Yes, journalist and presenter Shane Taurima was wrong to host and participate in Labour Party political activities, but the answer is not to turn the interrogation light on to the rest of the staff.

You can understand the state broadcaster’s embarrassment at the judgement of someone who should have known better. But suggesting staff might have to declare political affiliations was just as ill-conceived.

The idea drew a swift response from many, pointing out the ways such an action would be wrong. 

The Prime Minister, who arguably had some right to be annoyed, called it ‘unnecessary’. Even the usually circumspect State Services Commissioner said he’d be extremely surprised’ if it went ahead – the politically correct way of saying: ‘You have got to be joking!’

While the latest high profile case has revisited the question of public service neutrality, there are established mechanisms for managing these situations. Incidents like Shane Taurima’s can be just as much about an organisation’s failure to manage, as it is about bad personal judgement.

The debate was timely given the State Services Commission had just released a YouTube election guide video for public servants which has a simple message: Keep your job out of your politics, and your politics out of your job.”

It’s a fair summation of the Code of conduct for the State Services that contains a section on impartiality that wisely avoids being too prescriptive and provides four simple principles exhorting public servants to:

·         maintain the political neutrality required to enable us to work with current and future governments

·         carry out the functions of our organisation, unaffected by our personal beliefs

·         support our organisation to provide robust and unbiased advice

·         respect the authority of the government of the day.

The line between impartiality and bias will always be a judgement call, but the test is always the same: maintaining the confidence of ministers and the public.

Public servants have a right to hold personal beliefs and participate in the political process. They also have an obligation to declare them if their involvement could undermine that confidence.

The latest case is a families commissioner openly campaigning as part of an apparent tilt for a spot on the National Party list. That’s not a failure of the code, it appears another case of poor judgement – without the knowledge of her employer.

Once again it highlights the obligation for employees to act appropriately and that starts with talking to their manager. Any management response must look at the context of the involvement, the nature of the person’s role and their seniority. Ultimately, it might be a subjective call and not as clear cut as these two cases.

For the public service, maintaining neutrality and the confidence of those it serves is a matter of common sense, not knee-jerk edict.