The public service commissioner (state services commissioner until 2020) is a statutory officer with three main powers:
- appointment of top officials
- issuing a code of conduct
- investigating poor performance.
In most countries with Westminster-style governments, senior appointments are handled by ministers, commonly the prime minister. In New Zealand the appointment of most top officials is the responsibility of the state services commissioner.
For the departments in the core public service the Public Service Act 2020 sets out a process for appointments as head of department (chief executive). The public service commissioner must find a suitable candidate and propose that person to ministers.
Cabinet (technically the executive council) must consider the proposal and has the power to disagree. In practice this has happened only once among hundreds of appointments since 1988. If cabinet does not exercise this veto, the commissioner is authorised to appoint and employ the chief executive.
Since 2000 cabinet has also directed the state services commissioner to manage the selection process for the heads of other departments, including police, the armed services, the intelligence agencies and Crown Law. For those departments the formal power of appointment remains with the governor-general (effectively meaning the prime minister), and the commissioner’s role is advisory.
Code of conduct
The head of each government agency is responsible for setting the rules for the day-to-day conduct of government employees. As the employer, it is their role to determine expected performance and other employment conditions. However, wider standards of behaviour within the state services are determined by the state services commissioner.
The longest-serving public service commissioner was Peter Verschaffelt, who held the post from 1923 until 1935. He was appointed at the age of 36 and was widely admired, but eventually alcoholism led to his resignation. Some time later he shouted his disapproval of some public service legislation from the public gallery of Parliament; as a result, he became the only commissioner to be excluded from Parliament.
Prior to 2005 the commissioner’s power to issue a code of conduct was limited to the core public service departments. Since then the commissioner’s responsibilities have been extended across the state services. In 2007 the first state services-wide code was issued. It requires state servants to be fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy.
Whenever the need arises the public service commissioner has the powers of a commission of inquiry. The commissioner may gather evidence from government departments, and summon witnesses and examine them under oath. The prime minister can instruct the commissioner to carry out an inquiry, and the commissioner may also initiate an inquiry without direction.
This power allows an independent review of matters of public concern in the state sector. In the early 2000s inquiries considered the management of fisheries, safety and control within prisons, and alleged political partiality in a public service appointment. The reports were all published. The commissioner could follow up an inquiry by determining employment consequences (such as loss of pay or bonuses) for the chief executive of a public service department.