The recent Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report on Bullying, Culture and Related Issues in New Zealand Police is sobering reading. This is not the only report on bullying in our public service institutions (for example, the Civil Aviation Authority, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Parliament) and we would be naïve to think it is isolated and will be the last. Indeed, it reveals deeper issues with the best and the worst of our public service institutions.

The best of the public service are a swathe of people who hold deep, extensive knowledge because of their decades of experience. They are earnest and committed to the public service; polite, kind and generally humble, they exemplify the “spirit of service”.

They have lived through a public service that has for many years prided itself on giving “free and frank advice”. Their committed work has maintained a country that, according to official indicators, is mostly free of corruption and one of the best places in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to do business.

To say this swathe generally do as they’re told would be to undermine their earned authority, expertise and integrity. But it’s fair to say that, in the public service, rocking the boat, sticking your head above the parapet or challenging the boss is not generally within the behavioural lexicon. If you do, you will likely find yourself out of the in-group and not shoulder-tapped for any of the advertised roles, and you certainly won’t be appointed to a role in management. 

Although there are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation, perceptions of favouritism exist and the IPCA report finds favouritism to be a significant issue. If we looked, we’d find more widespread evidence of this across our public service institutions.

The unintended consequences of these generalisations of the public service is a blindness to politicking and manipulative behaviours. This is unfortunate, as it creates cultures within the public service that have been accurately described as toxic. Some examples of this have been in the media, but many have been covered up, hushed up or quietly settled in confidence.

The worst of the public service is arguably corrupted by ambition. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but combine it with organisational politics-derived self-interest, favouritism, status-driven behaviours, dishonesty, manipulation, passive-aggression, exploitation and narcissism and you arrive at hornets’ nests riddled with high turnover, delivery failure and employment problems. Again, the IPCA report notes many of these behaviours.

If we deny their existence, they are likely to fester and escalate and we will not address the underlying causes or symptoms. Organisational politics theory holds that individuals and organisations pursue their interests and gain power by exerting influence and political skill. If we take solely a stewardship view of the public service, we risk denying the complexity of human nature and motivation and the resulting behaviours that play out when humans interact in groups.

Attempts to tackle these cultures fall short because you can’t tackle culture without tackling leadership. It’s well known in management literature that ethical leaders at the top create ethical conduct and cultures below. 

There is certainly a cadre of exemplary leaders in the public service committed to making a difference and doing it with integrity. But there are also many who are not and who lack the self-awareness, training and knowledge to understand the complicated dynamics and issues at play.

This is important because it significantly impacts the public service’s ability to effectively address its complex challenges (equitable outcomes for Māori and Pasifika, a mental health crisis, maintaining a world-class education system, co-ordinated action on climate change, productive businesses, and so on). 

Yes, the country has done well and the public service responded swiftly through Covid-19. But the behemoth of the public service has longer-term problems to solve if New Zealand is to be a country where all, including future generations, can thrive. 

What do we need to do about this? Accountability is critical. Ethics needs to be incorporated into public sector performance-management systems, such as the Leadership Success Profile, with additional consideration given to monitoring, recruitment and selection processes. We need to implement better ways of measuring mediocre, harmful and destructive behaviours. And we need leaders who are capable and expected to create, and be held accountable for, constructive ethical cultures in their organisations. Chief ethics officer should arguably be the true role of the chief executive. 

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as this alone. Research is clear that ethical individuals struggle to apply their ethicality to groups. So we need further research to understand what is going on and potential solutions.

The first step is acknowledging the scale of the problem. However, I suspect we are still firmly in rose-tinted denial.

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