The former director-general of health Sir Ashley Bloomfield talks exclusively to The Detail about why he believes it's important for the public service to maintain its political neutrality, in the wake of the Rob Campbell saga.
Sir Ashley Bloomfield says it's crucial public servants maintain their political neutrality, to ensure ongoing trust and confidence in the public service.
Rob Campbell was sacked from his positions as chair of Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Authority after making comments in a LinkedIn post criticising the National Party's Three Waters policy.
Under the Public Service Commission's code of conduct, directors of Crown entities are supposed to act in a politically impartial manner.
"Rob was in a senior role chairing two important Crown entities...him coming out and making his comments in what could be and was clearly construed as a partisan way was an unusual thing," Sir Ashley tells The Detail.
"This is not what you generally see of public servants."
Sir Ashley has largely kept out of the media since he stepped down as director-general of health in July 2022, but says he wants to be a part of the discussion about political neutrality "because the public service itself is not really in a position to defend itself".
Shortly before Campbell was sacked from his Te Whatu Ora role, ACT leader David Seymour claimed in a tweet that the former board chair was not alone in his views, and warned that "large parts of the Wellington bureaucracy are openly sympathetic to the left".
"In my 25 years in and out of the public service, I've not seen either a left or a right bias or leaning in the public sector," Sir Ashley says.
"They were well aware of their responsibilities and of this key principle of the public service of neutrality."
Most public servants who work on government policy would have their own strong vision of what needs to be improved and how, Sir Ashley says, but they don't make these views public.
"It's really important for public trust and confidence in the public service, and indeed in maintaining that stewardship role - that is the ability to serve successive governments - that public servants both are and are seen to be politically neutral.
"That doesn’t mean you can't have conversations and won't have conversations with friends and colleagues in your private capacity, but LinkedIn is hardly a private forum."
Serving as director-general of health during the pandemic, Sir Ashley fronted 307 press conferences alongside the prime minister and other senior Cabinet ministers, becoming the face of the Covid-19 response.
Sir Ashley says the tension created by being a neutral actor in a political environment is a challenge faced by people in senior roles every day.
"When you're facing a select committee interrogation of the work you are doing as a chief executive and that your department or ministry is doing, you're right in the thick of a political process.
"And it really behooves you in that environment to act with political neutrality, with impartiality, and to deal with the issues that are pertinent to your work as a public servant and not to engage with the political dimension of that."
Sir Ashley says while there's a grey area in the middle, being able to navigate it is an important skill for senior public servants to have.
"I served in the public service under 10 different ministers of health, starting with Bill English and finishing with Andrew Little, and I'd say evenly balanced between National-led and Labour-led governments.
"It's an environment I enjoyed and thrived in and found challenging but also incredibly rewarding, and I guess what Rob is saying is that he didn't have the same experience."
Sir Ashley says that although he is no longer a senior member of the public service, and no longer constrained by those responsibilities, he won't be speaking out about government policy - at least not publicly.
"I've spent 25 years establishing - I hope - good, strong, enduring relationships across the public service, and I intend to maintain those.
"So I won't be going out making off the cuff comments or opinions that could potentially undermine those relationships."
Hear more about Sir Ashley Bloomfield's reflections on his time in the public service in the full podcast episode.
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