Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler has announced the outcome of an examination of what led Inland Revenue to commission a public poll that included a question about the political leanings of taxpayers.
A letter from Mr Ombler to State Services Minister Chris Hipkins provides assurance that the principle of political neutrality, which is to be embedded in the new Public Service Act, is well understood and will be observed going forward.
In early February 2019 the media reported that Inland Revenue had, in an online survey about trust in IR and the tax system, asked a question of respondents about their political leanings.
Mr Hipkins asked the State Services Commission to examine what happened and to provide an assurance that the principle of political neutrality is understood within Inland Revenue.
The Commission looked at the Inland Revenue matter and also asked other government departments to review their surveys, polls and equivalent research over the last five years. They were asked to look for any questions that could potentially be perceived as being politically motivated.
The SSC says the three agencies which were approached have since reviewed their policies for approving and outsourcing surveys, reminded their staff about the importance of political neutrality and implemented other recommendations in their respective investigation reports. It has now published those reports.
"There was no evidence of political motivation. In each case, the public servants were motivated by academic rigour, believing the questions should be included to achieve their department’s legitimate objectives. New Zealand and international research suggested the questions be asked to ensure a more robust, complete result. IR wanted to understand how best to maximise trust in the tax system, DoC wanted to better understand opinions on pest control and Stats NZ wanted to develop an effective marketing campaign for the 2018 Census," the SSC says.
However, Mr Ombler says it was disappointing the agencies either did not identify, or address, the risk of creating a perception of political bias.
“I don’t doubt research on these surveys shows the results might be more meaningful in a broad sense if questions of a political nature are included, but this cannot be at the expense of political neutrality, which is the overriding consideration in the Public Service,” he says.
“I’m disappointed this has happened. It is never okay for a government agency to seek or collect information on the political leanings or party affiliations of citizens. The three questions asked were ill-judged, inappropriate and had the potential to undermine the principle of political neutrality.
“It is disappointing political neutrality was not front and centre of the work and thinking behind these surveys. Someone should have asked the question.”