Editorial: Commissioner failed in his public duty

Last updated 05:00 30/03/2010

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OPINION: The most alarming aspect of the Mary Anne Thompson affair is not that a senior public servant falsified her CV, but that the former head of the public service halted inquiries into her falsehood years before it was exposed.

Thompson's fall from grace is well-documented: after a stellar public service career, she abruptly resigned as head of the Immigration Service in 2008 just as doubts about her qualifications were being referred to police. At the time she was embroiled in a controversy over preferential treatment given to her relatives by the Immigration Service.

What was not well documented until The Dominion Post dissected the affair on Saturday was that former state services commissioner Michael Wintringham instructed a private sector recruiter, who had suspicions about Thompson's CV, to "desist from further inquiries" as far back as 2004.

The recruiter was Lilias Bell of Bell McCaw Bampfylde, the specialist public service recruitment agency retained by the SSC in 2004 to find a successor to Mark Prebble as head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. At the time, Thompson was deputy head of the department and a leading contender for one of the most influential and prestigious posts in the public service.

But within minutes of Mrs Bell questioning her about the doctorate she claimed to have obtained from the London School of Economics, Thompson withdrew her application for the post.

Mrs Bell undertook further investigations on her own initiative and advised Mr Wintringham that there was no record of Thompson gaining a doctorate. But, instead of initiating a formal investigation, Mr Wintringham told Mrs Bell to stop her inquiries.

He was, he subsequently said, concerned that further inquiries could "damage both the defendant's considerable professional reputation and the reputation of the commission as well".

He was right about the first. He was wrong about the second. What has damaged the commission's reputation is not Thompson's fraud, but Mr Wintringham's failure to properly investigate a matter of obvious concern.

Mr Wintringham appears to have taken an extremely narrow view of his role. That was that, once Thompson withdrew her application for the position as head of the DPMC, he had no responsibility for her conduct because she was no longer seeking one of the chief executive positions for which he was responsible.

Mr Wintringham, now the chairman of the Earthquake Commission and the Remuneration Authority, misunderstood his obligations.

To perform its functions efficiently the public service needs the trust of the public. The commissioner's job is not just to appoint chief executives but to set and uphold standards and defend the integrity and reputation of the public service.

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By failing to do so, Mr Wintringham contributed to the undermining of public confidence in the public service. It is to be hoped his successors do a better job.

- The Dominion Post

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