Local Government Magazine
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Public or private? Ethical standards of behaviour

New Zealand public sector organisations at both the central and local level are apolitical and proudly so, says SOLGM CEO Karen Thomas. This convention has served well successive generations of New Zealanders. And it contributes to our internationally-recognised status, through Amnesty International’s annual rankings, as one of the most honest and transparent countries in the world.

At the central level, guidance is provided to state servants regarding their expected conduct and can be found on the State Services Commission’s website. In the main, the principles can also be applied at the local level. But the nature of the council chamber, with (usually) the absence of party political organisation, means that additional care must be taken to ensure council officers demonstrate their impartiality.

Eight specific responsibilities are assigned to local authority chief executives through the Local Government Act 2002, Section 42 (2). One of the most important of these is the responsibility to provide leadership for the staff of the local authority. In doing so, New Zealand’s 78 local authority chief executives set a standard to balance the political rights of staff with their employment obligations.

The State Services commissioner warns: “Our political interests and activities (and possibly even the political interests of a close family member) have the potential to conflict with our obligations as [local public] servants.”

Each triennium, newly-elected councils and the communities they serve can have the confidence that local public servants are ready to act in an impartial manner, providing honest, unbiased, apolitical advice to elected members.

But balancing the personal rights of staff as New Zealanders and members of local communities, with the importance of maintaining trust in public institutions requires local authority chief executives to regularly exercise judgement about political neutrality.

The State Services commissioner advises that being apolitical involves two different principles. The first is an absolute obligation not to bring our political interests into our work. “It also implies that there is a variable tolerance for political involvement,” the commissioner advises.

“We must maintain in our non-working lives the level of political neutrality that is appropriate for the responsibilities we have. Those of us in very senior positions may be required to have a very low level of involvement, perhaps with our interest being discernible only by casting a vote [during the election period].

“By contrast, if we are unconnected with policy development or are not in a managerial role, we will usually be free to be politically active. We must be aware always of how perceptions of our personal activities could undermine the confidence that [councillors and our communities] have in our organisation.”

Recently a number of local government chief executives and senior managers have expressed to me their concern about a new wave of local authority staff expecting to make personal / private submissions to their council during long-term plan and annual plan hearings.

This phenomenon serves to remind us that our ethical standards and the beliefs and behaviours they are predicated on can never be taken for granted. There must be constant vigilance in the assessment and determination of the balance between rights and obligations.

And this requires ongoing discussion in the workplace as new situations present themselves, new examples become apparent and new policy areas are identified.

SOLGM members agree to abide by a code of ethics at the time of joining the society – an authoritative guideline of acceptable standards of professional conduct. The SOLGM Code of Ethics serves to provide additional guidance to the codes of conduct issued by the local authority chief executives.

Open discussion about the codes, and the types of situations which may be covered by them, will add depth and understanding to the application of the balance between individual rights and employment obligations.

Chief executives will continue to exercise their judgement in these matters, demonstrating the primacy of their role in setting the expected levels of behaviour for the managers and staff of local authorities in New Zealand.

A number of chief execs and senior managers have expressed to me their concern about a new wave of local authority staff expecting to make personal / private submissions to their council during long-term plan and annual plan hearings.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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