One of the starker findings from the Working in the Public Service survey is that almost half of respondents say there’s a tendency for their organisation to gloss over or even hide failures.
Clearly the “front page of the Dom Post test” is still alive and well, although a similar proportion of respondents also said their agencies were at least more open than they had been in the past.
The survey was done for BusinessDesk and the Institute of Public Administration NZ by the research agency Perceptive.
However, as with the other survey topics, what came through is that organisational cultures and therefore the experiences of public servants vary greatly because one in five respondents thought their agencies were becoming less open, with one saying transparency had even reached “an all-time low”.
Comments pinned the lack of transparency on the fear of political or career repercussions, with media “sensationalism” also mentioned as a factor.
Respondents were generally more positive about other aspects of openness, such as public consultation processes and applying the Official Information Act (OIA), although many raised concerns about the latter in their written comments.
Junior public servants were far more likely to agree that their organisation tended to hide or gloss over a bad situation, with 60% of those with a tier 5 role (the lowest level) agreeing with that statement, compared with only 31% of those with tier 1 and tier 2 roles.
Sword and shield
One complained that the lack of transparency was “overwhelming”, and agencies had a clear priority to avoid any risk of embarrassing a minister or ministry by hiding the “incompetency of processes, record keeping, decisions and staff”.
Some said it was difficult to be transparent when admitting mistakes could mean losing their job or their minister becoming more risk-averse.
“Careers of leaders, in particular, are dependent on the success or otherwise of big projects, so poor performance is often dismissed or downplayed,” a respondent wrote.
Aggravating factors were the “quality of public discourse”, including politicians looking to blame public servants, and media looking for ways to “trick” officials into saying or showing things out of context and presenting opinion rather than facts.
“The sensationalism seems to be more important than the truth and for this reason makes it more difficult for information to be shared freely," a respondent wrote.
The OIA “can feel like a shield for public servants, and a sword for journos", said another.
However, there were contrary views. One said they’d noticed chief executives were no longer “hung out to dry” and were being given the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
“It is perhaps testament to my current organisation, but there seems to be more transparency and less ‘Dom Post risk management’ by senior leaders and their advisers.”
However, it was disconcerting to hear claims that some senior leaders don’t understand the reasons for parliamentary checks and balances on the executive branch and are not being forthright in the information they provide to MPs.
One said there was far too much focus on presenting everything to parliament “in a rosy light at the expense of facts” while another wrote that “spin doctors” had altered factual responses to written questions from MPs.
Public servants are mainly comfortable with how the OIA has been applied, as 85% of those with an opinion agreed their organisations practised and promoted the “letter and spirit” of the act.
However, nearly one in six dissented and more concerns were raised about the OIA than any other survey topic relating to open government.
The two most common concerns were the chilling effect the OIA had on written advice and the level of resources needed to administer what was believed to be an inefficient and out-of-date system.
One said many of their colleagues spoke fearfully of the possibility their work could become the subject of an OIA request.
“As public servants, we should not have to sanitise what we write just because it could get OIA’d. Call issues out as they are and don’t hide them.”
Another said public servants were under immense pressure not to put unpopular advice on paper or even in emails.
“Face to face and phone calls are frequently used on contentious issues to ensure there is nothing discoverable in terms of the direction given by seniors and/or the minister.”
Where emails have been released it had “corroded” the free and frank exchange of views between officials, and “so people speak in code” when writing emails.
Overall, only 30% of public servants thought the OIA impeded the provision of free and frank advice.
Several complained about how resource intensive and time-consuming the process of responding to requests was, with one suggesting that agencies could push back more on “unreasonable” requests.
A few said the 40-year-old OIA had become outdated, with one going as far as calling it “unworkable” in an information environment that was fundamentally different from when the act was written.
Another also saw modern information technology as the cause, but also potentially the cure, of the problem.
“The volume of data and documents and electronic communications generated in the course of day-to-day work means that a simple OIA request from 20 years ago is now a significant piece of work to manage.
"Information-management systems are due for reform across government. These systems could be better used to automatically release saved documents after a certain period of time or be better integrated with the OIA.”
More proactive release of documents was suggested by some, although one noted the process of redacting such releases had also become onerous.
Only a handful of comments raised concerns about compliance with the law, but these traversed similar themes to the Ombudsman’s recent Ready or Not report, including a lack of training and inappropriate engagement with ministers’ offices, particularly around the “no surprises policy”.
Some were very concerned about the integrity of their agencies, with one saying senior colleagues had intimidated them into changing OIA responses into answers “I can only describe as untrue”.
Another said agencies played “fast and loose” with OIA compliance, “especially around meeting statutory timeframes and interpretation of grounds for refusal”.
This respondent warned of a need “for considerable reform in this area to maintain trust in our institutions, encourage open government and allow greater participation in the political process”.
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 sample 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