The Government needs to set clearer expectations about acceptable methods of investigation for public servants.

This week the Herald revealed that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has spent $112,000 hiring a security firm to teach staff how to use fake social media profiles to gather intelligence.

The document outlining the contract was posted on MBIE's website on the day State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes released a report which showed government agencies including MBIE had used private investigators Thompson and Clark to secretly record insurance claimants and spy on protesters - a decision described by Hughes as "an affront to democracy".

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones has promised senior ministers will be briefed on the MBIE course, saying New Zealanders should be able to go about their daily business "without the fear of bureaucrats peering into their social media".

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However he added that the training might be useful for Immigration staff trying to track international students who used student visas as a back door to New Zealand residency.

Jones' answer suggests the training could well be a hamfisted attempt to deal with a legitimate problem. Government departments have been caught asleep at the wheel on a number of fronts for many years, often because they clung to a mantra of light-handed regulation instead of taking decisive action.

The former Building Industry Authority failed dismally to stop the leaky building crisis 20 years ago because it believed the construction industry would monitor itself. The Qualifications Authority and Immigration New Zealand were too slow to act on illegal behaviour in the lucrative export education sector, preferring to give repeat offenders second chances for years instead of prosecuting.

The same overly cautious approach led to the resignation last month of NZTA chief executive Fergus Gammie, after it emerged that his agency had not been checking warrant of fitness providers properly. More than 20,000 suspect warrants have been issued and at least one death has been linked to the inadequate checks.

It must be tempting for both ministers and bureaucrats to conclude that at times it is necessary to put the rulebook aside to get the job done. In fact the opposite is the case.

If public servants need more powers, they should lobby their masters to get them and politicians should debate the proposed changes in public. If officials can show they need greater legal authority or even training in the arts of subterfuge to stamp out criminal behaviour, they may win official support.

But such decisions should never be made in secret, with the unfortunate appearance that government departments have suspended normal rules, including natural justice.

Sadly the MBIE training session and the SSC report into MBIE, the SIS and the Ministry for Primary Industries are not the only recent examples. Last year the Social Security Appeal Authority had to tell Ministry of Social Development staff to stop using false names in reviewing appeals by beneficiaries. Staff claimed it was necessary for their protection but the authority said the idea of faceless decision-makers was repugnant.

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It looks as if the professional culture of some government departments needs an overhaul.