Transparency, please

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
18 February, 2022

The Wellington economics fraternity was up in arms last week. The reason was a job opening.

Treasury is seeking a Senior Analyst for its Economic Strategy unit. Advertised as a ‘unique opportunity’, Treasury explained they were looking for “a well-rounded candidate”. Fair enough.

But then the Government’s economic advisory department added that “an economics background is not essential.”

Former Treasury employees and academic economists were outraged. How could you have a senior position in economic strategy without knowing economics, they asked. Quite.

Still, there is another and equally concerning problem about Treasury’s job advertisement: it totally lacks specificity.

This is everything the job ad tells us about the candidate’s required characteristics:

  • Critical thinking through constructive debate
  • Good people and relationship skills
  • Comfort working at pace (when required) and dealing with ambiguity
  • Be a superb communicator with good EQ
  • The ability to motivate and influence others
  • An interest in mentoring and supporting other team members

Based on these requirements, anyone could apply. None of these criteria are specific, let alone formal.

Keeping public sector job ads so vague is problematic. It opens the door to arbitrariness and stands against best international practices.

New Zealand regularly leads Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perception Index’. So it might be worth also taking their recruitment advice onboard.

Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Resource Centre warns that “in many developing countries, weak HR management processes have resulted in oversized and under-qualified civil services, with distorted incentive structures and poor work ethics that ultimately undermine the goal of building a strong, efficient and accountable public sector.”

Now, New Zealand is not a developing country. But we do not want to become one, either.

Transparency International strongly recommends precise definitions of skills in public sector recruitment: “If merit is vaguely defined in broad terms, such as ‘able to do the job’, many candidates may be adequate, and the ambiguity may be misused to favour relatives or political supporters to the detriment of other outstanding candidates.”

This is not corruption of the bribery kind. But it allows an intellectual corruption in which a candidate’s actual qualification can be trumped by irrelevant considerations.

Next time Treasury advertises a position, it should be more specific. If it wants a lawyer or an accountant instead of an economist, fine, but then it should say so. Ideally, it should identify the qualifications and experience of the candidate.

What is good advice for other countries is good advice for New Zealand.

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