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All public servants are political
What the Rob Campbell saga can tell us about the mushy rules that set out how we want public servants to behave.
My apologies for the long time between these emails. I was on holiday and then fairly busy with my day job.
Back in 1558, when we were still on the first Queen Elizabeth, she gave her top public servant some marching orders.
“This judgement I have of you: That you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift and that you will be faithful to the State, and that without respect of my private will, you will give me counsel that you think best.”1
Almost 500 years later this remains the story the public service tells itself about itself. It exists to serve the state with “counsel” that is corrupted neither by personal gain (“any manner of gift”) or an over-eagerness to please leaders (“without respect of my private will”.)
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This story has its merits as a guiding principle, an ideal strived for but rarely quite reached. It has no caveats so is nice and declarative, a touchstone public servants can turn to in place of a written constitution, since neither the UK or New Zealand has one of those.
But any sentence this simple can be mangled into meaning whatever you want simply by changing a few definitions. Who or what is “the State” - is it just the governing apparatus, or the people it serves too? What if something is good for “the State” (the present Government) but bad for “the State” (the public service)? What if you write a piece of “counsel” that you know will be made public and embarrass your leader?
What if you decide that what “you think best” is writing a LinkedIn post attacking the Opposition and then doing media rounds explaining why the Government shouldn’t fire you over something?
The Rob Campbell saga is not exactly Watergate. But it is an interesting lens to examine the general expectations we all place on public servants - the public, the politicians, and the most important people of all, the media.
It is obvious to people who pay attention to this stuff that what Rob Campbell did broke some kind of rule for public servants. You are not supposed to publicly comment on a party’s policy or its leadership unprompted. You might do so in a veiled way when pushed to, or in private conversation, but not in a public forum, and certainly not so directly.
But actually finding the rule that Campbell broke the exact letter of is not that easy. The advice from Peter Hughes that both ministers used to fire Campbell quotes the code of conduct for public sector board members, which states:
We act in a politically impartial manner. Irrespective of our political interests, we conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future governments. We do not make political statements or engage in political activity in relation to the functions of the Crown entity.
When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public’s trust in the entity. We discuss with the Chair any proposal to make political comment or to undertake any significant political activity.
Campbell was the chair of the new Health entity and the Environmental Protection Authority - neither are that involved in Three Waters, with the reform programme being run by DIA. So it’s hard to argue that he was really making a “political statement…in relation to the functions of the Crown entity”.
Luckily there is a bit of a catchall that board members “conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future governments”. Given it is all but certain that the National Party will one day hold office again, attacking it so blatantly would impact Campbell’s ability to “act effectively” should they win the next election. This statement is buttressed by the further request to “avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public’s trust in the entity.”
That last one could cover almost anything. Ashley Bloomfield, probably the most celebrated Kiwi public servant of all time, said plenty of things that eroded the trust of some of the public throughout the pandemic. That doesn’t mean he was wrong, it just means he was stating views about contentious topics that the public has a strong view on. He’s hardly alone - public servants say things in briefings and select committee appearances every day that some sector of the public find objectionable.
Some of these statements are hard to read as anything but political. Treasury’s briefing for the incoming Labour Government in 1984 famously set out much of its radical neoliberal policy programme. The Climate Change Commissions sees a big role for the state in mitigating climate change. MBIE continually advises against raising the minimum wage. These are political topics, no matter how much the public servants may wish to act like they are simply showing a minister that 1+1=2. And that’s not even touching on all the brutal organisational politics that enters into the fray from bodies that are almost always trying to justify their own importance, existence, and eventual growth.
Of course, no one would ever argue for firing any of those public servants. Indeed, they are doing exactly what Queen Elizabeth I asked them to do - offering counsel. It is their job to have strong and informed opinions about the operation of the state. Yet any view of how the state should operate is by its very nature political.
The difference between all these political statements and the ones Campbell made are important. Campbell made a comment specifically about a political party and its leader. He did this in public and unprompted. This clearly crosses the line, even if the actual line that it crosses is not all that clear. He found his way into “loose cannon” territory, and NZ politics loves to hate a loose cannon.
Why get into the weeds to parse this so deeply? Well, because we should be honest with ourselves and not pretend that this stuff is always going to be this easy. I think Campbell has a bit of a point that board staff should have a bit more room to make comments (although perhaps not this level of political comment.) The nature of our tiny pool of elites means many board members of various public entities will have some political connections. What if Campbell had made the comments in private and someone had recorded him? He would still hold the same views, but clearly our view of his professionalism would be quite different. What if he had made a potent political point without quite referring to National inside the sanctity of a written briefing to his minister, that was technically private but sure to be released eventually - say a spirited defence of co-governance in health? What if instead of talking about the National Party, he had been talking about Labour? Wouldn’t that kind of just be him speaking truth to power? What if he was attacking some fringe political movement instead of one of the big two?
The truth is these things are always a bit singular, which is why the rules are so wide and mushy. Much like in the UK we rely heavily on the “good chaps”2 theory of Government. We don’t really have super hard and fast rules about public life because we assume everyone will play by the unwritten conventions that have governed things for decades. They are “good chaps” informed by other “good chaps” they know and have worked with for their entire career. This doesn't always work: I would argue Kris Faafoi's sudden move from Cabinet minister to lobbyist shows in many areas we do need some stronger rules, but it does seem to keep New Zealand attracting some of its best and brightest to the public service, which can only be a good thing.
Charlie Mitchell on how everything is Covid now - even the weather forecast.
Patricia Lockwood on her husband having a bowel issue. I promise this is the funniest thing you will read all week.
Anna Rankin on Cyclone Gabrielle in Wairoa.
Simon Kuper on whether Paris is becoming the new London.
Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood! Available in all good bookstores. I have wider thoughts on this book I will write down somewhere if people care about my book views.
Me (a while ago) on Chris Hipkins’ strategic retreat.
I found this quote in Peter Hennessy’s excellent book Whitehall, p.345.
This one is from Peter Hennessy too.