Kāinga Ora’s chief executive is cleaning up a mess created by his own communications staff.

Andrew McKenzie has disowned a statement made to Newshub and BusinessDesk on Wednesday defending revelations that a group of staff had hidden the fact a publicly funded advertising campaign featured a Labour party election candidate.

On Thursday, housing minister Megan Woods told journalists that some Kāinga Ora responses to media inquiries over the previous 12 hours did not show that her agency was taking the issues seriously enough.

A Kāinga Ora spokesperson told BusinessDesk that Wednesday's statement was “not representative of organisation’s view on this issue and the seriousness in which it is being taken.”

Chastised but not chastened

In August, Woods had chastised officials for their handling of advertising that featured a Labour party candidate a few weeks before the 2020 election campaign.
Yet in a late Wednesday evening email, an agency communications manager had backed the advertising, a sponsored "news" article, saying "Anyone can clearly see it's not political, rather it's residential or community-focused!"
The spokesperson then raised the political stakes by saying, "I can't help but notice Nicola Willis hasn't linked to the actual story anywhere. I wonder why?" Willis, National's housing spokesperson, had released the emails, obtained under the Official Information Act, that led to Woods chastising her officials. 

Acting like they didn't know.

The ad was part of a campaign that appeared in May last year, featuring Labour candidate and now MP Arena Williams as the face of Hobsonville’s community spirit. 

It was published just days before her selection as a Labour candidate was officially confirmed, and less than two months before the election campaign began.

The emails released to Willis revealed that Kāinga Ora staff said they would just act as though they didn’t know anything about her political candidacy.

In a follow-up statement released on Thursday exclusively to BusinessDesk, an apologetic MacKenzie admitted the situation over the advertising campaign should have been handled better.

He said the senior communications adviser responsible for the campaign last year made a personal judgement call that the story was OK to proceed as it was being published prior to William’s candidacy being announced.

A Kāinga Ora spokesperson clarified later on Thursday that the adviser did discuss the situation with their general manager, but had made the final decision.

Blame aims down

Willis told BusinessDesk it was a classic situation of blaming the junior staffer.

“The general manager is accountable for ensuring their staff member understands the standards that are expected and provides guidance and, in that instance, should have provided guidance that it wasn’t appropriate for that story to go ahead.”

Even so, she said it was alarming that a senior communications adviser was not aware of basic expectations of political neutrality and the need to conduct themselves with honesty.

Willis added that McKenzie’s statement focused on political neutrality, whereas he should see that the core issue is the lack of honesty shown by senior staff in his organisation.

“That speaks of a culture in which that sort of misconduct is acceptable.”

More training delivered

In his statement, McKenzie said Kāinga Ora employees are made aware of their responsibilities to be politically impartial when they start work and are reminded of these obligations “from time to time as appropriate”.

The agency’s government relations manager has given additional targeted training to the team involved in the campaign, he said.

McKenzie gave his assurance that “everyone involved, and Kāinga Ora, has learnt from this to prevent these types of situations from happening again.” 

In response to questions from Willis in the House, Woods told Parliament she became aware of the emails on August 2 and within 12 hours had conveyed her concerns to Kāinga Ora and its monitoring agency (the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development) and has now sought advice from the Public Service Commissioner. 

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