Heart of Darkness in the public sector

The extent of spying by several public sector agencies goes to a worrying lack of public service at the heart of our public service

A glance at yesterday's news agenda and 'Government to hold binding cannabis referendum' would have looked like a much more promising and intriguing story than 'State Services Commission releases report'. Ya- and -wn. In fact the SSC's 'Inquiry into the use of external security consultancies by government agencies' is a bit of a page-turner and a terrifying read for anyone who cares about the integrity of the public sector.

Frankly, in these times when core institutions are under strain in many countries considered 'stable democracies', everyone should care about public sector integrity. A glimpse at the US suggests such integrity is one of the last lines between, say, the upholding of the law and the chance a president may get away without having to answer felony charges.

The SSC's bland sounding report matters because it calls out not one, but four government agencies breached their own codes of conduct. How? By hiring private investigators to snoop into the legal activities of people the report calls "ordinary" New Zealanders.

The suggestion is that in some cases the surveillance started with good intent - the health and safety of the agencies's staff. But the report, compiled by Doug Martin and Simon Mount, finds creep crept in and led to what State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes called "an affront to democracy". The inquiry set out to answer two questions:

  • How and why have government agencies used external security consultants, and in particular have external consultants been used to carry out surveillance? 
  • What relationship have government employees and agencies had with Thompson and Clark? It's worth a quick run-through the ill-deeds it found.
  • Investigators for insurance company Southern Response went to 'claimants only' meeting in which legal strategy was discussed, recorded discussions and provided the insurer with transcripts. At least one recording may have been illegal and the only reason Mount and Martin can't say whether it is or not... is because it has been destroyed. 
  • Investigators for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishers went to animal rights meetings, monitored activists and paid informants. 
  • Thompson & Clark investigators spying on Greenpeace for the oil industry may have handed some information onto MBIE and, the report says, the company (working for one side in this fight, remember) was able to "embed itself as a crucial participant within the regulatory and enforcement function". 
  • Crown Law (Crown Law!), on behalf of CYF, used investigators to to – essentially – dig dirt on two brothers bringing a claim they were abused in state care. The vague nature of the mission meant a breach of code.

The report lists the groups spied upon: Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE), Oil Free Otago, Climate Justice Taranaki, Farmwatch, the Green Party, the Mana Movement, Greenpeace and some iwi groups. It's obvious - and worrying - that these groups all come from a certain place on the political spectrum and are all expressions, in one form or another, of political protest. These are grass-roots organisations whose resources tend to be people and passion rather than cash and lobbyists.

So why are they being targeted as - let's be frank - almost 'enemies of the state'. Yes, state sector bosses may have heard threats from some of them and been genuinely worried for the safety of their employees. But the work done by investigators went too far.

My concern is what this says about the culture at the heart of our public service. How did leaders who are by the very definition of their roles meant to be servants of the public decide that this level of covert surveillance was a good idea? Government agencies are typically so risk averse these days that they have multiple managers signing off press statements and an inability to make a decision on which pencils or toilet paper to buy without first clearing it with the minister's office. Yet they are willing to subject those 'ordinary New Zealanders" to secret surveillance.

There is something seriously muddle-headed about a culture that sees explaining themselves to the public as high risk, but spying on them as a fair and reasonable use of those people's own taxes.

Maybe, however, the two are related. Maybe it's a terrible aversion to risk that drove this spying. Despite a code of conduct that demands fairness, impartiality and a care for the reputation of the public sector as a whole, there seems to be a deep-seated sense of butt-covering and paranoia in these decisions.

In each of those cases, the obvious alternative to spying was to reach out and attempt genuine conversations with the groups these civil service feared so much. Y'know, these 'ordinary' New Zealanders who so frightened them. Maybe have some compassion for the earthquake victims and those claiming abuse in state care? Perhaps be that impartial servant and talk to the activists who want change on their issues?

Those in charge of the public sector need to step back, open their eyes and see the culture that allows numerous leaders to choose spying over dialogue and secrecy over transparency. It's welcome to see that the Chair of the Southern Response board, Ross Butler, has seen at least that his position was untenable and he had to go. But what about those at MBIE and, strikingly, at Crown Law, who went after the men claiming to be abuse victims? What about the managers throughout these organisations who knew about this and accepted it?

Finally, what about the SIS, which has history in this territory? If it is an "affront to democracy" for some government agencies to be infiltrating groups and iwi led by ordinary New Zealanders, where does that leave those who are our professional spies?

The proper response to this report is not a few hours of tut-tuting, the Prime Minister expressing formulaic concern that the spying was "disturbing" and the symbolic resignation of a single chair. No, the proper response is a change to the public sector culture. So who will lead that?