Civil servants will be required to be “apolitical”

“Politically neutral” is a hilarious term to me, except when it actually is put into a set of guidelines for the conduct of civil servants. So far the only mainstream source that has reported on this is the NZ Herald, although when I revisit this issue I’ll try to add more sources. Meanwhile the actual guidelines are available at the State Services Commission website.

So, what does this all mean? The definition of “State servant” according the the SSC, is “everyone who is the chief executive of, or an employee in, an agency in the State Services is a State servant (this excludes board members and members of a corporation sole.” As the guidelines state, it “enables State servants to provide consistent services (including policy development) for the government of the day.” At first glance one might be tempted to agree with such a sentiment, based along the lines of increased efficiency, “neutrality” and cooperation. However, on further inspection the guidelines are more troubling. First of all, it basically gives the employer of any state servant a clear set of guidelines they can point to if they see their employees as acting in a “political” manner (whatever that means). Effectively then, if, as a hypothetical state servant, I gave advice that was critical or challenging, there is now something my employer could point to to shut me up or get rid of me, either by not renewing my contract or just dismissing me. Secondly, what is “apolitical”? What is politically neutral? Apparently no one has a say in this, or is even able to define was this (practically) means. I certainly wouldn’t call the current government’s agenda “neutral,” but then they wouldn’t call mine “neutral” either. Whose view matters most? Thirdly, the guidelines state that personally, you’re allowed to hold whatever political opinions you want, but you can’t let these “affect” your professional life. This is as naive as the expectation of complete objectivity for journalists: it’s utopian, ignorant, and for the most part, practically impossible. Especially since we’re talking about the regulation of “advice”. I would argue that probably 99% of advice, even advice based on mathematical models or scientific consensus, is political. You can’t tear it away from its sponsors, its interests, its theoretical consequences, and its applications in the real world. Lastly, what disturbs me the most is the unabashed way they have tried to equate the policies of “the government of the day” and “political neutrality,” although I’m hoping no one is actually foolish enough to believe that. However, there is a definite attempt to feign neutrality on the part of our government, which is not only untrue, but reductive. There’s also the question of whether being politically neutral is even desirable in the first place.

Thanks to The Dim Post for bringing this to my attention.

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