Simon Louisson: An inside view of the politicisation of the public service

There is a fear of upsetting the minister that intensifies the further up the chain a civil servant is, says Simon Louisson.
ALEX LIU/STUFF

There is a fear of upsetting the minister that intensifies the further up the chain a civil servant is, says Simon Louisson.

OPINION: Nearing pension age, I recently had my first proper encounter with the public service, and it was something of a shock.

I was stunned at the politicisation of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (ECCA), where I had a short-term contract in the communications section. The Crown agency promotes energy saving and conservation, on face value as apolitical as apple pie.

From the appointment of chief executives who are politically, or personally, aligned to a minister, down to every document being censored for fear of reaction from the minister or minister's office, the public service has been politicised.

Public agencies exist to carry out their statutory function. That is not to say they should operate as satired in Yes, Minister, whereby they carry on regardless of what the minister says.

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It is perfectly legitimate for ministers to set policies and to ensure mechanisms are in place to ensure such policies are implemented. What is not legitimate is to interfere with the day-to-day operation of the agency and/or to subvert its overall statutory purpose for political ends.

At EECA we had a minister, Judith Collins, who also holds the Energy portfolio, which at face value appears to be at odds with EECA's purpose to conserve energy. Ms Collins comes from the "drill, baby, drill" school of energy which is at odds with the precepts of the Paris Climate Accord signed by her government.

There are plenty of other instances where ministers are appointed to portfolios they essentially don't support and actively, or covertly, undermine it. Louise Upston, "I'm not a feminist", as the former Women's Affairs minister, and Nick Smith, the pro-development minister for the environment, come to mind.

What we had at EECA was the absurdity of one of the country's main advocates for energy conservation and the agency with, possibly, the most, expertise on methods to cut carbon emissions, being muzzled by being forbidden to openly talk about how New Zealand might comply with its obligations to meet the Paris accord.

The censorship didn't come from a written edict; it came from self-censorship whereby staffers "channelled" what the minister would probably want. An in-house "governance" executive operated as gatekeeper, but largely was unneeded. All references to the Paris Accord would most commonly be self-censored long before it even reached the governance officer's eyes, knowing she would take the red pen to it. The minister's office never had to do a thing.

We were told that any "negative" references to carbon emissions would cause business to "disengage" with the issue of energy saving. So we backed off.

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Another instructive instance of politicised self-censorship revolved around EECA's extensive programme of assisting big energy users cut their energy use and emissions. The National Government is terrified such programmes will be labelled "corporate welfare", something it regularly accuses Labour of promoting. So EECA documents avoid reference to, or actively advertise, such "funding". Instead it develops coded euphemisms, such as "support".

What results, is that these useful programmes to cut emissions are not properly promoted and used.

Risk aversion lies at the heart of all this censorship – fear of upsetting the minister that intensifies the further up the chain the civil servant is. Because ministers require almost everything to be sent to their offices as part of the "no surprises" policy instituted by former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, career public servants rightly fret about career ambitions, or even their job, if they proffer contrary advice to the minister's views.

As Dominion Post columnist Vernon Small has noted, "the no surprises policy has morphed into 'no embarrassment' and the next stage of evolution – 'how can we help you avoid embarrassment'."

Victoria University Reader Chris Eichbaum recently published an article on his research of self-censorship, where he analysed research that showed over half of public servants believed "public servants in 2017 are less likely to provide a minister with comprehensive and free and frank advice".

Eichbaum quotes former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer as stating that in recent years there has been an absence of free and frank advice offered to ministers and that "there is a real risk that will promote a tendency to politicise the public service and endanger its independence, thereby adversely affecting the quality of the advice given and the decisions taken".

Well, Sir Geoffrey, the horse has bolted if my experience is in any way typical.

The latest fiasco whereby various ministers were informed under the no surprises policy that NZ First leader Winston Peters had had his pension overpaid exposes the dangers of the no surprises policy and its politicisation.

Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book revealed how ministers obtained information, often under the no surprises policy, and then leaked it to friendly journalists or bloggers, who wrote articles damaging to the Opposition. As Small writes, the no surprises policy "is being stretched, distorted and subverted into something much worse".

Eichbaum says a frustration about having a proper public discussion about the issue is the denial by senior public servants that there is a problem. "Unless people are prepared to accept that there is an issue here, they are not going to be able to be part of any conversation to remedy this."

Simon Louisson worked as a journalist for 30 years for Reuters, NZPA, The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post and other newspapers. He worked as a media and political adviser for the Green Party before the last election.

 

EECA RESPONDS

I was surprised by criticisms of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) from Simon Louisson, who worked for us for a short time some months ago.

I took up leadership of EECA in January, and my experience of the staff and of our Minister doesn't match his views. 

I'm a strong believer in the importance of political neutrality and see it as a key part of my role to uphold it. 

We use the language and key messaging that mean our programmes get the best results for New Zealand. We are not restrained in any way in our ability to do that. 

What we do works – we have a strong track record of saving households and businesses money on their energy bills to prove it.  

EECA provides independent information, advice and authoritative materials, based on our expertise and knowledge of energy efficiency and renewable energy, to all our audiences and stakeholders. This is a key part of our role and will continue to be.

Andrew Caseley, EECA Chief Executive

 - The Dominion Post

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