Holding senior officials to high standards

I’ve been bothered for some time by how lightly the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, was excused over his lapse of judgement in accepting hospitality from New Zealand Cricket at a time when preferential access to the Covid vaccine for the New Zealand cricket team was a matter of some concern to New Zealand Cricket, and when Bloomfield himself exercises considerable clout in such matters (having both formal statutory powers assigned to him ex officio, but also being (one of) the Covid minister’s chief advisers). It wasn’t even as if this was a single lapse, since Bloomfield acknowledged that he had last year several times accepted tickets to rugby games, and yet the Rugby Union had been negotiating with the government re the ability to host foreign teams in New Zealand.

New Zealand has tended to pride itself over many years about the incorruptibility of public life. Unfortunately, we have seen too many cases over the last few decades that suggest this is more folk myth than reality, although clearly there are many places worse than us. But “many places worse than us” is simply not an acceptable standard; rather it expresses a degree of complacency that allows standards to keep slipping a little more each time, with excuses being made (“not really that big a deal”), especially for those who happen to be in favour at the time. But those sorts of cases, those sorts of people, are precisely where a fuss should be made, where mistakes or rule breaches should not be treated lightly. Integrity – and perceived integrity and incorruptibility – really matter at the top, and if there is one set of accommodations for those at the top, and another (more demanding) standard for those at the bottom it simply feeds cynicism about the political system and about our society.

What I worry about was captured quite well in a recent article in the Financial Times headed “British politics is morphing from delusion into sleaze”. Britain used to be highly regarded on this score too, but (sadly) no longer. Things seems worse there than here, but “many places worse than us” isn’t the standard we should tolerate.

I really don’t understand the near-deification of Ashley Bloomfield in some circles. Perhaps it is because I have not watched a single one of those 1pm press conferences. The man is a highly-paid very powerful senior public servant who, in the course of his stewardship at the Ministry of Health. seems to have done some things well and quite a few things not that well. But my indifference to the “cult of St Ashley” is really neither here nor there. A senior public servant could have, so to speak, walked on water, and it would still have been a staggering misjudgement to have been accepting hospitality from an organisation that wanted to lobby him/her. Even more so, when it was not just a single lapse.

When the story first broke, I lodged OIA requests with both the Ministry of Health and the Public Service Commission (former SSC) asking for copies of their policies on acceptance of gifts and hospitality. The Ministry of Health responded quite quickly and I wrote about their response in a thread of Twitter. Rather than go through all the material again, here is a copy of the thread I posted.

bloomfield 4

bloomfield 5

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Good policy, simply ignored by the chief executive (Bloomfield). It wasn’t as if this was the sort of decision he’d had to make under extreme pressure or on the spur of the moment. If he wasn’t aware of his own agency’s policy – which would be pretty extraordinary – no doubt he has not just an EA but a whole office, any one of whom could have been asked to check the policy and get back to Bloomfield. He could have checked with his senior colleagues whether taking this hospitality was likely to pass the smell test. If he was still in doubt, he could have checked with his employer, Peter Hughes, the Public Service Commissioner. It appears he did none of this things, until after the story broke. From someone who has huge powers vested in them, it is not just a lapse of propriety but a stunning lack of judgement. If this is how things we come to hear about are dealt with, how much confidence can we have re other matters the Director-General is responsible for.

One hears suggestions that, Bloomfield having eventually realised it hadn’t been appropriate, all was made good by the fact that Bloomfield wrote a cheque for the equivalent of the cost of the tickets and donated it to the City Mission or some other worthy charity. In fact, that is almost pure distraction, since the money was never the main issue – on his salary he’d not have had any problems going to the cricket or rugby at his own expense if he’d wanted it (as many thousands of others did). Writing a small cheque simply doesn’t adequately deal with the inappropriate behaviour in the first place – any more than it likely would have were it to have been someone well down the public sector food chain.

Anyway, that was the Ministry of Health response. Yesterday, the Public Service Commission finally responded to my request. They provided me with the PSC’s own policies, for their staff and management, and a link to the guidance the PSC provides to public sector chief executives on such matters. I thought they were both pretty good documents.

The guidance to chief executives (of whom Bloomfield is one) is most relevant. This from the first page was just the sort of thing one would hope to see.

hughes 1

And this was pretty good to.

hughes 2

Did Bloomfield never read it?

And, slightly off topic, I was quite impressed with the austerity of this section of the guidance.

hughes 3

In some respects, the PSC’s own policies for their staff – not binding on Bloomfield – are even better.

hughes 4

hughes 5

Good stuff. The SSC policy even extends to immediate family.

hughes 6

Stringent rules, and aptly so.

So the Ministry of Health has stringent policies, the SSC has stringent policies, and the SSC guidance to chief executives is also stringent. Not one of those sets of policies should have led any employee – no matter how junior, or senior – to think that accepting sporting hospitality from entities trying to influence (“persuade, convince, explain”) the public servant would be anything close to appropriate. Such offers should have been declined immediately and repeatedly. And not necessarily because Bloomfield’s advice or decisions would have been influenced by hospitality – though as he is human too, who (including himself) can really know – but because it is simply a dreadful look, that corrodes reasonable public expectations around the integrity of the public service, all the more so in this time of Covid when the state has been wielding more extensive than usual powers, and then (somewhat inevitably) exercising discretion around exceptions to the rules.

But what actually happened? We might deduce from Bloomfield’s later comments that the Public Service Commissioner had told him his conduct in these matters had not been acceptable. But we are left to guess even at that. Perhaps defenders of Bloomfield might cite personal privacy, but when you are a very high official and you overstep the bounds in public, any rebuke also needs to be clearly visible to the public. Otherwise, we might reasonably think one of the public sector elite was looking after another of that same elite, perhaps even playing politics.

Because the political “leadership” was far worse. We – the public can’t do anything about Peter Hughes or Bloomfield – but we rely on the politicians we elect to demand high standards from the public service. And what happened in this case? Both the Prime Minister and the Covid minister did little more than laugh off these breaches, suggesting that no one begrudged Bloomfield an afternoon at the cricket after all his work. Pure distraction, pure minimisation, when the issue was never about him having a Sunday afternoon off at the cricket, but about who hosted him, and what interests his host had in influencing him.

I don’t think accepting one invitation to a sports event should be a firing offence – even for someone as powerful and prominent as the Director-General of Health. Repeat offences, as we saw in this case, do raise the ante somewhat, because they create doubts about the man’s judgement, and even about a possible sense of entitlement. David Clark lost his position as Minister of Health for offences that, in the scheme of things, were less serious, albeit embarrassing to the government.

But we should have been able to expect the Public Service Commissioner, the Prime Minister, and the Covid minister (for that matter the Minister of Health) to all have made it crystal clear, in public, that Bloomfield’s behaviour represented a serious and repeated lapse of judgement, a breach of the clear standards expected of MoH staff and public service chief executives, and that any repetition of this sort of lapse would be utterly unacceptable.

Or are the rules only for (a) show, and (b) little people?

10 thoughts on “Holding senior officials to high standards

    • I would put NZ in the category of one of the most corrupt countries in the world contrary to what the official international statistics indicate. Corruption comes in many forms. In NZ it is demonstrated by how slow everything is done. That itself is a form of corruption. Overseas when you pay a bribe, it greases the wheels so that jobs and projects complete faster. In NZ it is the reverse. Slow everything down to earn more, do the same job two or three times. When the government pays $500k for a children’s park it should be very clear this is an example of the potential size of the form of corruption that is rife in NZ.

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  1. I am also one that has neither listened to the talks from the pulpit, or support the sainthood bestowed on Ashley. His acceptance of various tickets was certainly wrong and he should have known as such. However I will at least give credit for being prepared to apologiseas it blew up.

    His defence by Jacinda and Chris was totally wrong. For them to trivialise breaking the rules indicates they have no belief in their validity. That their own morals see no problem with glossing over rules if it is to their advantage.

    But the biggest problem I see is how our various media outlets failed us. They showed their own bias by covering up rather than calling out the obvious moral failure. Unfortunately our media is no longer fair and balanced, they have all knelt before the altar of Saint Jacinda, where to question or say negative things is heresy.

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  2. The wider issue around Ashley Bloomfield’s ‘lapse of judgement’ is not related to sponsored attendance at sporting events, but rather how further does the ‘lapse of judgement’ extend? Should we be concerned for example about his silence over the AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine that has been reluctantly acknowledged to cause blood clots and deaths in various countries?

    I may have missed any announcement he has made concerning this Vaccine, so presumably it is still one of four that has been purchased by the Ministry and is still being administered to New Zealanders up and down the country.

    I note the Australian PM today announced that it will no longer be administered to Australians under 50, with the age restricting appearing somewhat arbitrary despite their explanations.

    Authorities have known for some time there has been a problem with this vaccine, as over 100 scientists and health professionals from more than 25 countries have previously raised concerns with the European regulator over this vaccine:

    https://doctors4covidethics.medium.com/doctors-for-covid-ethics-signatories-15878f9ff76

    All we have is silence from Ashley Bloomfield and our MOH. Where is the media on this? More silence.

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  3. It’s amusing to watch people say how wonderful NZ has been in stamping out COVID vs other countries and then listing places where it was never very practical to institute a national quarantine. Any government of NZ who instituted a firm national quarantine and lockdown would have eliminated the virus. So, St Ashley has done the easy part so far.

    The real trick, will be seeing how well NZ handles re-opening to the rest of the world. I don’t see how that can happen without COVID coming in, without many people becoming ill, and a good number of deaths.

    Or is NZ simply going to remain in Splendid Isolation?

    Personally, i couldn’t run my business in FortressNZ so I left NZ in November, have been vaccinated with Moderna and don’t regret my decision one jot.

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    • I’m probably a bit more optimistic than you provided they can get the full scale vaccination programme up and running before too long, but they have been sluggish and error-prone so far, and the govt had hardly been willing to embrace a full scale reopening – say early next year – with any enthusiasm.

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  4. Today’s public service is dumbed down and politicised. So long as COVID hangs around Bloomfield will enjoy Ardern’s patronage. But it is impossible to overlook the many failures at the border and the false assurances about PPE, testing etc. They have cost New Zealand, especially small businesses in Auckland, very dearly through repeated ad hoc lockdowns. It’s hard to be confident about the vaccination programme despite the advertising that is intended to convey the impression there is a plan. We don’t even have sufficient supplies in the country yet despite being told we were “first in the queue”. An orchestrated litany of lies, to coin a phrase.

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  5. Really, given he’s on over $500k (600?) there should have been a determination, even sans those policies, that he would never accept tickets or anything. As a known evangelical he should have known better.

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  6. From various media including blogs, thank you Michael, I get the feeling that Ashleys tenure is starting to come under fire.
    His list of achievements? Cant find that list anywhere.

    Are vastly smothered by his large and continuing number of screwups.

    I say his screwups as he is “The Boss” in charge of Public Health in NZ.
    He is the ventriloquist behind the PM and Ministers blathering about Covid.

    And he has the temerity to keep standing up and prognosticating without end.

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  7. One could perhaps forgive a small breach of ethics if his performance in his role was outstanding, but that is clearly not the case. A year after we first went into lockdown and the border was closed, we still don’t have quarantine working effectively – something which he is statutorily responsible for – and worse, the Ministry of Health appears to have badly dropped the ball on vaccination. Obviously we did not secure the vaccine with any priority from the suppliers (and we have not had any explanation for the huge inconsistency between the Minister’s “front of the queue” assurances of last year and the reality that we are behind most other Western countries), plus we cannot even administer all the doses we already have. At the current rate of vaccination it will take a decade to vaccinate enough NZers to gain herd immunity. I don’t think anyone, least of all those in the health system itself, has confidence that the Ministry of Health can manage an effective vaccination programme.

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