Should New Zealand’s constitution protect the independence of the public service?

New Zealand’s constitution should safeguard the independence and core values of the public service, argues Sir Geoffrey Palmer

The public service is a very important part of New Zealand’s system of government. While Parliament makes laws and Ministers make the important policy decisions, it’s the public service that advises on policy and delivers services to New Zealanders.

The system of government relies on public servants being politically independent, able to take a long-term view of the public interest and to provide free and frank advice to Ministers.



These basic values have been compromised in recent years. Ministers may not want free and frank advice if it conflicts with their policies or political agendas. And they may want the public service to manage political risks for them.

And Ministers tend to be focused on the next election, whereas the public service needs to take a longer view.

In A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, we are proposing safeguards to protect the public service’s core values. In particular, our draft constitution provides that:

  • public service appointments are made on merit
  • the first duty of the public service is to act in accordance with New Zealand’s constitution and law
  • the public service must be politically neutral and impartial, and must loyally serve the government of the day
  • the public service must given Ministers free and frank advice
  • the public service must uphold the concept of stewardship, which involves planning and managing to serve New Zealand’s medium- and long-term interests.

The draft constitution also provides for the head of the public service – the State Services Commissioner – to make decisions independently of Ministers.

You can read more about our proposals in Chapter 9 of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand. And you can read the specific proposals in section 26 of the draft constitution.

What are your views?