Should public servants be impartial?
"Impartial" Not partial; not favouring one party or side more than another; unprejudiced, unbiased, fair, just, equitable (OED).
In legislation before the Australian Parliament it is proposed that the Australian public service (APS) work on the basis of five values – commitment to service and ethical, respectful, accountable and impartial behaviour.
In commenting on the proposed values I am conscious of the fact that the public service has wider responsibilities than just supporting the government of the day. Indeed all public officials have a duty to uphold the public interest.
Unfortunately there are those who have forgotten or ignored this requirement and have found themselves the subject of investigation and unfavourable findings by the courts, commissions of inquiry or other accountability agencies. Part of such a duty is being apolitical in the performance of their functions and the avoiding of conflicts of interest.
This is important because if there is a clash between what the public interest requires and what the government is asking him or her to do (or not to do) the former should prevail in terms of advice tendered and actions taken.
This takes me to the use of "impartiality" in the APS Values. It implies a public service that stands for nothing, that is free from bias.
In fact, as I noted above, the APS is an institution of government that can't be impartial or neutral with respect to the public interest. It should always seek to ensure in its own work and in its advice to government that powers are not misused and that money is spent properly. Indeed the public interest stands above and makes sense of the values listed in the legislation.
This takes me to a second point – public servants don't work in a vacuum, they serve governments that are elected by the people. They advise as well as deliver services and manage policies and programs. They are expected to do these things professionally, ethically and effectively. We wish them to be committed to excellence in what they produce and how they produce it.
However, doesn't a part of what they have to do involve advocacy. Is it not the responsibility of the public service to support the policies of the government of the day? What is the point of saying they should be impartial? They aren't and we don't expect them to be; what we expect them to be is professional and apolitical. That does mean frank, fearless and evidence-based advice to government ( and this is acknowledged in the legislation) but there are also circumstances in which public servants are required to promote the government's agenda – public meetings, community consultations, policy briefings for interest groups and opposition MPs and media interviews. To expect them to be impartial in such situations is unrealistic. On some occasions it may actually be their technical advice to government which they are defending!
All governments have a right to expect their public service to support the implementation of their policies with professionalism and energy.
From my experience in government and opposition this is what they do.
Why would we imply otherwise in the statement of values?