Wellington Scoop

Honest, impartial, objective?

The NZ Transport Agency and the Greater Wellington Regional Council have both got themselves into hot water recently over claims that they weren’t being entirely accurate in their public statements. So what should we expect from these public servants, and when does simplification of complex issues turn into outright spin?

In the case of the Transport Agency, there’s been criticism that their recent pronouncements about the proposed Petone to Grenada road and its unexpected extension through Takapu Valley are misrepresenting the views of the community. Here’s what the Agency said in this week’s media release:

A newly released consultation feedback report shows that community support for a Link Road between Hutt Valley and Porirua/Tawa is strong, there is widespread acceptance of the preferred route on the Hutt Valley side, and the economic benefits are well recognised.

Yet the reality seems at odds with that statement. As the Dominion Post reported, the consultation showed “… ‘significant’ support for upgrading the State Highway 58 route over Haywards Hill rather than developing a new Petone-Grenada road.” Which is not the same as strong community support for the Transport Agency’s preferred link road.

And comments on wellington.scoop amply back up the Dominion Post’s reporting: “NZTA’s Petone to Grenada media release is pure spin. Selectively picks favourable quotes. Neglects mention of major concerns. 1000+ of the 1400 submissions to NZTA had no view on a Petone to Grenada Rd, but they were AGAINST the silly Takapu/Tawa options” … “The NZTA must have had their eyes closed, fingers in their ears and been refusing to look at the evidence for the last four months. We know that over 1,000 submissions said NO to either C or D, as did GWRC, as did Peter Dunne, as did the Porirua Council … “

And more in the same vein.

To the outside observer, it almost looks like the Transport Agency are attempting to manufacture consent rather than reflect the genuine views of the community that were expressed in the consultation process. Is this a normal part of how a government agency should operate? Let’s take a look at the State Sector Code of Conduct and the guidance provided by the State Service Commissioner to see what it has to say about the matter:

We apply high standards of professionalism to the advice we prepare for our organisation, regardless of whether that advice is for Ministers or other decision-makers. […]

Our advice must be honest, impartial, comprehensive and objective. The traditional expression is “free and frank advice”. This relates directly to the need to maintain the confidence of our Minister (as well as any future Minister) and to the principle of political neutrality. Our advice must be free of personal interest, political bias or the interests of our organisation. It should reflect an understanding of the policies and priorities of the Government. It should be transparent and should not contain unclear or hidden agendas.

The highlights are ours.

So how will the Transport Agency be advising their Minister about the road? If the press release is anything to go by, local residents might well be concerned that their very strong majority views aren’t going to get an airing when it comes to the Minister being briefed.

And does the optimistic (some would say reality-denying) view of the Transport Agency meet the test laid down in the Code of Conduct? Does their reframing of 1,000 submissions failing to support the road they want to build really qualify as “honest, impartial, comprehensive and objective” and as “not contain[ing] unclear or hidden agendas”? Or should we simply accept that truthiness is now the order of the day, and that the Code of Conduct for state servants is merely an aspiration?