A large proportion of front-line public servants think government recruitment processes are unfair, according to results from the Working in the Public Service survey.
Merit-based appointments – the idea that jobs go to the best-qualified candidate without favouritism, nepotism or discrimination – is one of the core principles codified in the Public Service Act.
While a clear majority of all survey respondents agreed that appointments were merit-based, nearly half of the bottom tier of the public service said they disagreed.
Numerous written comments claimed “shoulder tapping”, “cronyism” or even “nepotism” were common.
The Working in the Public Service survey was undertaken for BusinessDesk and the Institute of Public Administration NZ by the research agency Perceptive.
Concerns were also raised about senior people having no experience relevant to the agencies they lead, or managers being appointed to lead teams but lacking people skills.
Nearly three-quarters agreed their agencies actively seek diversity – but some said the efforts were largely “tokenistic”, while others said it resulted in unqualified people being appointed.
Overall, 62% said they mainly (45%) or strongly (17%) agreed that "... people get jobs and promotions based on their merit".
They were also more likely to disagree (43%) than agree (29%) that the situation was getting worse, although almost one third offered a “don't know/can't say” response to this question.
It depends where you sit on the ladder
As with many other questions in the survey, the extent to which people felt appointments were made purely on merit depended on their seniority, or lack of it, within the public sector.
Only 48% of those with tier 5 roles (the lowest level of public servant) agreed they were confident appointments and promotions in their organisation were merit-based.
After excluding the don’t knows, the tier 5 split was 54% agree/46% disagree.
Contrast that with over 80% of tier 1 and 2 staff who are confident in the fairness of the process.
Māori were more also more likely to disagree that appointments were merit-based than their Pākeha or European colleagues. Almost double the proportion strongly disagreed that appointments were on merit, although this finding should be viewed with some caution as only 5% of respondents, 38 of the 771 public servants who responded to the survey, identified as Māori.
Women were also slightly more likely to see appointments as not being based on merit than men – 33% compared to 29%.
That is not a huge discrepancy, but one that is more robust given the larger number of respondents in each category.
It’s not what you know…
A common complaint was that recruitment processes were seen as a sham, with managers already knowing who they would appoint before they even started the interview process.
The phrase “it’s not what you know but who you know” came up several times. One public servant said a new general manager had “shoulder tapped” five people to come over from their previous organisation.
Another claimed their agency’s leadership was dominated by a faction “with personal connections running back decades” which now benefited the children of those involved.
“This nepotism has affected my career progression personally and has deeply disillusioned me about the objectivity of the public service”.
One respondent suggested things had become worse because of covid: “As things have become chaotic, hiring managers tend towards expedience and directly appointing who they trust and know rather than respecting the time taken to conduct a fair and open process.”
Diversity was a hotly debated issue. Some made comments such as “Wellington thinks it’s diverse and inclusive but really it isn’t”, while others were concerned by appointments being made “on the basis of inclusion rather than merit”.
One noted that diversity initiatives had focussed on gender gaps or the gap between Māori and other groups but “nothing concrete beyond these”.
This was at the expense of “Asian, Pasifika and other ethnicities”.
Several commented that the engagement with Māori that did exist was “tokenistic and inauthentic”.
Another pointed out that an overlooked aspect of diversity was lived experience, and that the way merit-based policies were implemented reinforced an existing bias.
This person said the system appoints people “with a narrow range of lived experiences and who have the most influence over the policies that impact wider society”.
This encouraged a “Wellington view of the world” that was out of sync with the lives of most people who require support from the government.
Reinforcing this Wellington mindset, another respondent said managers were reluctant to consider applicants from outside the public service, while a few said that Wellington-based managers were reluctant to appoint people who would be based in a regional office.
“Those based in Auckland and other regions, despite having the required skills and experience for advertised roles in Wellington, are actively discriminated against and have fewer opportunities to build long-term meaningful careers within the public service.”
About the Study
Our data collection relies significantly (with permission) on the approach and questions used by Chris Eichbaum and Richard Shaw in their 2017 work “Research on the influence of political staff in Ministerial and Prime Ministerial Offices and political neutrality in the New Zealand public service”.
Some questions follow the wording and methodology of previous work by StatsNZ and the former State Services Commission.
Invitations to participate, with a link to an online questionnaire, were distributed on an anonymised basis in late September 2022 to individuals likely to be employees of central government in the databases of the Institute of Public Administration NZ and BusinessDesk.
Recipients were invited to complete the survey and to pass on the invitation to colleagues who work in central government.
Two reminder emails were sent over the next three weeks.
As a privacy measure, the questionnaires were not linked to individual email addresses, nor to the respondent’s employing agency.
As a result of this sampling method, no weightings to the population of NZ public servants were applied, and the results should be interpreted in this context.
– Additional reporting by Andy Fyers