Politicising the public service

Written By: - Date published: 11:00 am, May 1st, 2009 - 48 comments
Categories: public services - Tags:

During the last Labour government the Kiwiblog Right used to call Wellington ‘Helengrad’, a play on Leningrad. Ironic then that, after the election of National, David Farrar humorously changed the name to ‘St Johnnysburg’, based on the Russian city’s czarist name. Because the Nats are making Labour look like amateurs when it comes to authoritarianism.

In an unprecedented move, National has forced government ministries to hire political appointees euphemistically called “purchase advisors”. These people aren’t public servants and they don’t sit within any legal system of public service accountability. Their appointment appears to breach section 33 of the State Sector Act (something to think about for the rightwingers before reflexively defending this) because they were handpicked by English but are employed out of departmental budgets.

They’re political spies. Their job is to bypass the structure that is set up to guarantee the neutrality and transparency of the public service and keep ministers at arms length from operational decisions. Far from restoring the supposedly lost neutrality of the public service, National is politicising it.

48 comments on “Politicising the public service”

  1. Yeah, Labour didn’t appoint political advisors to every Cabinet Minister’s office, and use Heather Simpson, a political appointee to vet all cabinet committee papers.

    Political advisors policed advice that would go to Ministers, returned briefings and cabinet papers. They even authored cabinet papers themselves and didn’t run them past the public sector. They were employees of Ministers’ offices, but were politically selected and no, not subject to the State Sector Act either.

    So yes, criticise National if you wish – but Labour was no better.

    • lprent 1.1

      I suppose the question is if you condemn the practice of either or both? You didn’t state if you thought it was good practice.

      I’d tend to separate political advice to ministers as being quite different to purchasing control by the treasury. One of the characteristics in the last few years has been that often the ministries objectives for good underlying reasons were stymied by their political effect. For instance Shane Jones with his ministry ignoring the political aspects on the light bulb question. Good idea if you look at it from any economic aspect, but had problems politically for very little rational reason.

      The purchasing placements almost looks like a power grab by one ministry and minister on the others. There are already budgetary controls, what exactly is this for?

      captcha: constitutional boy

    • samiam 1.2

      Libertyscott is only partly right, Labour in government had political advisors in most Cabinet Ministers offices, paid for by Ministerial Services, which is part of the Department of Internal Affairs.

      However, National has also appointed their own political advisors in these positions in Ministers offices too. So no real issue there.

      I think the issue at hand here, is the uncovering of these new purchase advisor positions which are not run out of Ministerial Services, but paid for by each departmental chief but appointed and responsible to the Minister.

      By way of history before people start jumping up and down about Labour having political advisors in Ministers offices, the practice started in the mid 1990s, around about the advent of MMP. Chris Eichbaum from VUW has written several interesting papers on the subject.

  2. Lew 2

    Helengrad was a portmanteau of Helen+Stalingrad, not Leningrad.

    L

    • Tane 2.1

      Interesting, I assumed it was from Leningrad given Farrar’s play with St Johnnysburg. Out of interest, what’s your source for the origin of the term?

      • Daveski 2.1.1

        St Petersburg became Petrograd during WWI as it sounded too German. After the revolution, it was renamed Leningrad but reverted by to St Petersburg in 1991.

        Stalingrad has a similar political story. Originally, Tsaritsyn, then Stalingrad, and now Volvograd.

        It doesn’t matter whether it is Leningrad or Stalingrad – grad is short for “gorod” meaning town hence Helen’s-town.

        You never know when a few years of studying Russian will come in handy 🙂

        • Daveski 2.1.1.1

          LOL … I write a post that is the least politicised of any I’ve ever made here … in fact, riddled with boring FACTS I tell you … and I get moderated.

          LP – have you updated the about section to ban boring pricks like me?

          • Tane 2.1.1.1.1

            The word ‘Stalin’ and others are moderated because they’re a classic sign of trolls. That’s why your comment went into auto-moderation.

          • lprent 2.1.1.1.2

            😈

            Yeah it is a by-product of my extensive research (ie moderating the damn trolls). You usually find one of the banned words in at least one out of three of the comments by people subsequently bumped from here for various forms of trolling.

            I stuck them in auto-moderation to allow us to trap them early to give them warnings (or simply ban for the really obnoxious ones).

            Of course you periodically get a false positive where the word is being used correctly. 🙂 Sorry, you are false positive….. not a “boring prick” (I’d class more as wrong-headed, but that may be personal bias)…

        • The Voice of Reason 2.1.1.2

          Er, not Volvograd, but Volgograd. I’m guessing Volvograd is in Sweden!

        • Con 2.1.1.3

          An odd fact about the name of St Petersburg is that the Russian communists rejected the “patriotic” wartime name change to Petrograd and continued to call it by its old Tsarist name, as part of their policy of “defeatism” during WWI.

          (It wasn’t until Lenin’s death in 1924 that it was renamed Leningrad; in the interim I think it was called Petrograd).

    • Eddie 2.2

      Both are acceptable, surely Lew? Plus, the change to St Johnnysburg works better this way.

      Even if its not true, it’s more beautiful this way. Isn’t truth beauty and, therefore, beauty truth?

      • Lew 2.2.1

        Tane,

        It was coined as a clever play on words, not as a historically-accurate statement, and it emerges from the Objectivist/Libertarian discourse which characterises Clark as Stalinist, not as Leninist.

        PC dwelt upon this in what he hoped were that government’s final hours: http://pc.blogspot.com/2005/09/helengrad-where-did-it-come-from.html

        I came across other sources during my research on that discourse’s campaign against her, including “The Siege of Helengrad”, used in The Australian in 2000 and later by Ian Wishart. Margie Comrie of Massey University wrote a paper on the topic as well.

        Eddie,

        Both are acceptable, surely Lew? Plus, the change to St Johnnysburg works better this way.

        It’s not a matter of what’s acceptable – it’s a matter of the facts of its creation. You can misuse or try to revise its history it however you like, but the actual origin remains.

        Even if its not true, it’s more beautiful this way. Isn’t truth beauty and, therefore, beauty truth?

        No. Truth and beauty are an ordered pair, not equivalents.

        L

        • Eddie 2.2.1.1

          What’s up Lew? Such a grump today.

          I see your attack on the mathemagician’s post. It’s been corrected and the argument it still solid – you are better off not paying back your loan voluntarily, even at low interest rates.

          So your post is basically ‘dude makes mistake, mistake corrected’. I don’t get it.

          • Lew 2.2.1.1.1

            Eddie,

            What’s up Lew? Such a grump today.

            No different today than usual, really. I’m a bit disillusioned with the rampant hackery of the NZ blogosphere, but that’s nothing to do with the comment above, which is just an observation of technical detail.

            I see your attack on the mathemagician’s post. It’s been corrected and the argument it still solid

            Depends on your definition of `solid’. To me, a gain of $400 over ten years isn’t really equivalent to the initial assertion of $5500 or so.

            So your post is basically ‘dude makes mistake, mistake corrected’. I don’t get it.

            No, the point of my post is: dude wants to believe something, enthusiastically embraces totally bogus rationale which confirms what he wants to believe, rather than checking his premises thoroughly. I’m not really attacking mathemagician and I don’t think he did it on purpose; it’s just a usefully immediate case study in partisan credulity.

            L

  3. Eddie 3

    No, Labour was better. There is a place for political appointments and that is in minister’s offices, not in departments.

    If a government wants use political advisors and decide what goes to ministers within ministerial offices, that’s their business. Interfering in operational matters within departments is something else entirely.

  4. BeShakey 4

    Not subject to the SSA isn’t quite the same as in violation of it. The employment of political advisers outside of the state sector is now a fairly common part of Westminster democracies such as ours, forcing Government departments to hire political appointees is not.

  5. Tim Ellis 5

    I think there is scope for ministers to have contractual advisers giving them a view that is independent of the departments’ on the effectiveness of ministerial purchase agreements with departments.

    I think the ideal model might be an independent “productivity commission” charged with providing published advice to Ministers on the effectiveness of government spending. There are some risks of setting up a body that might be self-perpetuating and there is potentially some overlap between Treasury and Audit, but I think that is the natural evolution of purchase adviser arrangements.

    These aren’t political appointees or MFin “spies”. That is a nonsense. They are an important mechanism to avoid departmental capture of Ministers who just end up signing off on any spending proposals by the department, rather than judging the effectiveness of all departmental spending within a portfolio, and assessing spending against government priorities.

    • sanson 5.1

      That’s what minister’s offices are for.

      That’s where these people should be employed.

      Except they’ve blown those budgets already and they wanted a way to bypass the structures set up to guarantee public service neutrality and independence.

      • Tim Ellis 5.1.1

        Not correct, sanson. Purchase advisors are only needed during budget rounds to give technical advice. Ideally they should be contracted during budget rounds. They don’t give political advice. They give quality of expenditure advice. If they are under departmental control, then they will not be able to offer independent advice to the Minister.

        I don’t think it’s ideal that they are paid for from individual departmental budgets, though. Ideally they should be paid by DPMC or a separate entity entirely.

  6. I cannot believe how badly the labour party have handled this. It is amateur hour taken to another level.
    Getting Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson to raise the issue is hysterical… Both highly partisan PAST MINISTERIAL ADVISERS.

    This will not gain traction either, trying to beat it up when there are so many other stories keeping it off the front page was a mistake and the public perception is that the empire building mandarins need a shake up. Expecting them to voluntarily go on a diet is naive.

  7. Political advisors were employees of Parliamentary Services, how is that not part of the state sector? Was Heather Simpson not an employee of DPMC? How is it different? I think the differences are largely semantic – if they are advisors then so be it.

    Ministers have long interfered in operational matters within departments. I know umpteen examples when Ministers directed departments over things from what language they should use (Sandra Lee hated the words transparency and accountability), to major capital works (road project priorities changed rather radically between 1999 and 2001 as can be seen by the respective National Roading Programmes). Labour did it routinely, and I expect the Nats will too.

    My view is that I have no difficulty in Ministers hiring consultants to give them advice over any material coming to or from departments. I have a serious problem with them blocking free and frank advice from departments to Ministers.

    I believe “Helengrad” was coined by Lindsay Perigo. I quite like “Keynesia” for the current lot myself.

    • ghostwhowalks 7.1

      The road projects are a result of priorities set by Transits Board, which has ‘political’ appointees. This is done this way so that the politicians control the priorities list. The predecessor to Transit was the ‘National Roads Board’ which gives an even better picture of its intentions.

    • samiam 7.2

      Political Advisors are not employees of Parliamentay Services, but instead of Ministerial Services, a division of Internal Affairs which staff and finance all the opperations of Ministers offices – including Senior Private Secretarys, Executive Assistants, Ministerial Assistants, Press Secretarys etc. The money for this is voted through Vote Ministerial Services.

      Heather Simpson was not an employee of DPMC, she was however an employee e of Ministerial Services. DPMC is a seperate entity in itself. Heather belonged to the PMO (Office of the Prime Minister).

      Captcha re sack
      Oh the irony

  8. Lew 8

    Scott,

    I believe “Helengrad’ was coined by Lindsay Perigo. I quite like “Keynesia’ for the current lot myself.

    Close – a caller to Perigo’s radio show, thence gleefully picked up by Lindsay and Jenny Shipley and others.

    L

  9. tsmithfield 9

    Cool. Anything that shakes up the sleepy public service has got to be a good thing.

    • Tigger 9.1

      Why do you assume these ‘advisors’ will shake up anything? Or that there is so much to ‘shake up’ that we need to hire specialists to do that? Or that these people have the skills to appropriately ‘shake up’ such services?

      These advisors are a waste of taxpayer money. Departments have already done line by lines. If Ministers can’t use that info to decide on cuts themselves then they’re not up to the job of managing and THEY should be replaced.

      • Tim Ellis 9.1.1

        You’re quite right, Tigger. Departments have done line-by-lines. But nobody independent has yet gone in and queried just how effective the line-by-lines have been. That’s what the purchase advisors are designed to do. Departments don’t have a specific interest in identifying savings or low-quality expenditure. For departments with a billion dollar budget, the lowest-quality 5% of expenditure can amount to as much as $50 million.

        I think that paying a purchase advisor $50k for a couple of months to identify where savings can be made in low-quality expenditure that doesn’t conform to government policy priorities is a very useful application of taxpayers’ money.

        • wibblewithoutapause 9.1.1.1

          50K a month? Are you kidding???? I wonder exactly what type of advising you need to do to get paid so handsomely – in these recessionary times i wouldn’t mind that per year. But then, I didn’t graduate with a commerce degree nor am buddies with the antipodean tories….
          But seriously, aren’t there already enough means of accountability within government to ensure that the budgets are spend not only efficiently but effectively?

          • Tim Ellis 9.1.1.1.1

            $1500 a day isn’t exceptional in the public service for senior consultants wibble. There are probably as many as a thousand contractors charging out at those rates to public service agencies. Substantially more if they are charging through some of the big consulting firms.

            This isn’t new. It’s been going on for years.

            There’s a difference between whether departments are accounting for their expenditure, to which they are subject to audit review, and whether the spending is actually delivered towards the government’s policy priorities. My view is that there hasn’t been adequate oversight of this over the last few years, and that there won’t be until a productivity commission is established.

    • ghostwhowalks 9.2

      And why does English need his own advisor. His department is Treasury, are they a hot bed of waste and inefficiency?

  10. Graeme 10

    Their appointment appears to breach section 33 of the State Sector Act (something to think about for the rightwingers before reflexively defending this) because they were handpicked by English but are employed out of departmental budgets.

    If they were employees, yes.

    I anticipate that the are not, and that Tane is aware of the contractor/employee distinction.

  11. edoze 11

    Hahahahaha,

    Wait until the new national restrictive legislation gets passed.

    The screwy logic act 2010:

    Section 1, no shitty left wing blogs.

    Section 2, no shitty left wing parties.

    Section 3, reinstate capital punishment.

    Section 4, John Key for tyrant king forever. Muhahahaha. You know hes not even that smart.

    But seriously, this is a beat up and you know it. They need to cut the waste somewhere and as they cant fire the CE’s off the bat, so they are circumventing them instead.

    Politicking at its finest.

  12. Nah I realised that Tane (tovarich, not comrade) but did wonder if LP had managed to distill an algorithm to identify boring pricks.

    Actually, like a lot of nicknames, I thought that one had some humour but humour doesn’t always come pain free.

  13. Zaphod Beeblebrox 13

    Do they qualify as high or low quality public spending? Or are they just another lot of unqualified, back office Wellington public servants? I needn’t ask if they have any technical qualifications for the ministries they are employed by. In the end however they will merely be another level of useless bureaucracy as I am sure ministers with any intelligence would be able to get what they want by asking the right questions (Wellington not big enough to keep too many secrets).
    These are the sort of employees National pledged to get rid of.

  14. r0b 14

    National have some bare faced gall eh. This is beyond hypocrisy, it is surreal. Lest we forget – National calls foul over Environment Ministry post:

    The National Party is crying political interference after the Environment Ministry contracted a communications adviser with Labour Party links while Madeleine Setchell was sacked for her connections to National.

    The usual National Party hacks piled on board. Here’s serial hypocrite David Farrar at the time – Labour’s Curran employed thanks to Minister

    But it gets even worse. They also defer to their Ministers as who to hire. At the same time as Setchell is getting illegally fired, Hugh Logan is hiring a Clare Curran to do some communications work for the Environment Ministry. Why did he hire Curran? Because David Parker suggested she be hired. … Ministers have been caught with their dirty little hands all over the public service. … So why have no heads rolled?

    The outcry was such that there was a full enquiry, which in the event found that there was no improper practice in the appointment. But the concerns raised at the time were valid. As the State Services Commissioner said in his report:

    The overall lesson, then, is that not only does our law and custom prescribe that New Zealand public servants must be impartial, we must always take care to display impartiality. It is quite reasonable that senior public servants are exposed to close public scrutiny. We cannot assume that our good intentions will always be clear to those who see our behaviour. We must continually take enough steps to demonstrate that we are maintaining impartiality. That may sometimes seem demanding, but it is a privilege to work in a democracy, and we have the opportunity to do our bit to maintain democratic values by working impartially for the government of the day

    Well put. So here we are. One hint of political interference by Labour (which the report found to be untrue) was enough to trigger an apocalypse of National Party / right wing posturing and a full scale enquiry. Now the Nats are actually interfering on a much larger scale – and expecting no one to bat an eye! We’re through the looking glass…

  15. John Dalley 15

    Do we know the names and background of said “Purchasing Advisors” yet.
    Could be interesting to find out?

  16. Trevor Mallard 16

    Heather worked for ministerial services not DPMC. These advisors should be employed via the same route.

    But doesn’t the unanswered question relate to the name missing from the list?

  17. RedLogix 17

    I’ve said this before, but every false, misleading, overblown accusation that National/ACT/Farrarsewer flung at Labour, they in turn, will actually commit far more egregiously, with far more damaging consequences. Those who point the finger with the loudest outrage always turn out to have the most to hide.

    Listening to Brent Edward’s farewell interview with Dr Cullen this evening. The contrast between this highly intelligent, principled and genuinely humble man… with the stuffed prigs who have taken his place could not be more stark.

    • Macro 17.1

      I totally agree Red!

      But shouldn’t these “purchasing officers” be called the “commissariat” instead – the practice is SO USSR! I’m amazed the Bill’s face isn’t red!

  18. ben 18

    Jesus H Christ. Labour was as guilty. Where was this post a year ago.

    Lick spittles.

    • r0b 18.1

      Labour was as guilty.

      Ahh, no ben. Don’t think you read the post, or the comments above.

  19. CrosbyTextor 19

    Situation Report – Embedded Assistants Programme

    The Purchasing Section of the Embedded Assistant Programme has become exposed. While most of the jargon is in place and all of the levers have already been pulled, it is now more important than ever that the Supplier Section remain undetected until the transfers of funds have been completed. Media fallout from the exposure is being managed under Operation – Pink Tie which has left the chooks bamboozled and bewildered; current coverage of the “swine flu” is achieving more than 30 percent of news broadcast air time.

    The Masters are not happy with the lapse in the proper application of the Official Information Act and the assistant who released the papers has been crucified.

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