Germany’s Political Public Service vs. New Zealand’s Myth of Neutrality

Dr Oliver Hartwich
7 March, 2023

It was a big political story last week when the Hipkins Government sacked Rob Campbell from his prominent public service roles. The statements Campbell made on LinkedIn were blatantly political. Indeed, he later said he could not have imagined working under Chris Luxon should National win the election.

Campbell had to go if we are to maintain the fiction that New Zealand has a politically neutral public service.

But I say ‘fiction’ because it is obvious that the public service – and public servants – are not politically neutral.

Rob Campbell has always been a political person and forthright with his opinions. He would have continued to be, even if he had closed his LinkedIn account on becoming chair of Te Whatu Ora.

Similarly, entire government departments appear to have political or ideological inclinations. No matter which party nominated the Minister for Education over the past three decades, the Ministry of Education has always promoted the same kind of policies.

New Zealand celebrates the fiction of a politically neutral public service when it is obvious that, if it was ever like that, it certainly isn’t any more.

Perhaps we should be more honest about these issues. A comparison with another public service approach might be helpful.

Take Germany, for example.

There are obvious similarities between the political systems of the two countries. MPs are elected under MMP in both Germany and New Zealand. Governments are usually coalitions. Ministers are appointed by the head of state on the recommendation of the head of government. The ministries are the machinery of government.

However, such superficial similarities are deceptive.

Germany’s public service is more politically neutral than New Zealand’s in some ways, and less so in others. In lower and middle positions, neutrality is almost completely upheld.

Germany has a well-structured and regulated recruitment process for its public service, placing a significant emphasis on qualifications. Job advertisements must follow legal requirements and clearly outline the necessary qualifications, skills, and experiences required for the position.

In New Zealand, public service recruitment is (shall we say) more ‘flexible’.

For example, when the Treasury searched for a “Senior Analyst for its Economic Strategy” last year, they only listed soft skills like “critical thinking” in the job description. They also reassured applicants that an economics background was not necessary – without actually specifying any other required background.

Such an approach to public sector recruitment would not be acceptable in Germany. In fact, it would be against the law.

Before any position is filled in Germany, the criteria for the role are specified, and only those who meet the criteria can be legally hired.

This system has helped Germany build a highly skilled and technically competent workforce for its public service. These workers are called “Beamte” or civil servants, and they are expected to remain politically neutral and loyal to the state.

Germany has a civil service that closely resembles the neutral public service of the Westminster model, perhaps even more so than Westminster itself.

However, there is another side to the story. In the upper echelons of Germany’s administrative state, political appointments are commonplace.

This may seem a contradiction, but it is not necessarily so. The public service is part of the executive branch of government and is responsible for implementing the policies of the democratically elected government. Therefore, it must follow the directions of the political leadership to maintain democratic legitimacy – within the bounds of the law, of course.

Political appointments serve as the hinge between the politically neutral majority of public servants and the political leadership of ministers.

The German constitution, the Basic Law, gives the Chancellor and Ministers a strong mandate: “The Federal Chancellor determines the guidelines of policy and is responsible for them. Within these guidelines, each Federal Minister independently manages their own department and is responsible for it.”

German Ministers thus act as the chief executives of their departments and have authority to select their own leadership teams. This is considered a way to ensure that the department is managed by individuals who are aligned with the Minister’s policies and motivated to implement them.

In the current centre-left coalition of Chancellor Scholz, for example, there are quite a few notable appointments.

The Ministry for Economics and Climate Change has four State Secretaries who report directly to Greens Minister Robert Habeck. All of them are political appointments. Sven Giegold was a founder of Attac, an anti-globalisation movement, before becoming a Greens politician. Patrick Graichen worked as a lobbyist and think tanker for renewable energy causes. Anja Hajduk is a former state minister and federal Greens MP. Udo Philipp is a career public servant with the Green party and has previous experience in state ministries.

The Foreign Office hired Jennifer Morgan, previously Executive Director for Greenpeace, as State Secretary and Special Envoy for International Climate Action. Chancellor Scholz appointed Jörg Kukies, formerly managing director of the Frankfurt branch of Goldman Sachs International, as a State Secretary in the Chancellery.

Such appointments are highly political. They happen in every ministry, at federal and state level, and under every party.

Now contrast this with the New Zealand situation. Ministers do not manage their departments. Chief executives do that for them.

But Ministers cannot even hire those chief executives. That is the role of the Public Service Commission, which is another public service body. And both in the case of departmental heads and that of the Public Service Commission itself, political neutrality is a fiction.

Meanwhile, the technical qualifications of public servants in New Zealand do not quite match up to the sophistication of Germany’s public service career structure.

There are different ways to run a public service, which is worth noting as New Zealand starts to discuss the future of its public service in the wake of the Campbell affair.

Perhaps there is room for someone as political as Rob Campbell in the public service.

Well, in Germany there would be.

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