A line of thought that is familiar and disturbing runs through the State Services Commission report on the Environment Ministry's employment of Labour Party activist Clare Curran. Once again, seriously deficient "processes" have been found and, once again, no one has been identified as a culprit. Yet again, a State Services Commission inquiry has indulged in nifty footwork, this time to explain away what, at face value, appears to be substantial evidence of interference in the public service by a Cabinet minister's office.
Deputy State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie's report is especially damning of ministry officials' lack of awareness of the need to display political neutrality. After Climate Change Minister David Parker had suggested Ms Curran's name for a communications job, she was, he says, hired using a non-competitive selection process and at a pace that made it seem she was appointed on the minister's instructions. The ministry then did nothing internally or externally to counter perceptions of political interference. Perhaps worst of all, Mr Rennie concluded that staff had learned nothing from the episode and would not act differently if similar circumstances arose again.
Much of the report's strongest criticism concerns the need to manage perception. But it is far less direct when considering the realities of Ms Curran's appointment. Take probably the most damaging pointer to her place in the ministry scheme of things, an email from Mr Parker's private secretary to the personal assistant of ministry chief executive Hugh Logan. In this, Ms Curran is described as the minister's "right-hand woman". The report chooses to virtually brush this aside, noting that the private secretary had said she had "played up" Ms Curran's role to improve the chances of securing a meeting with Mr Logan. Why the minister's office should even have been involved in this matter is not addressed, except to indicate that "it does not appear wise".
The sidestepping does not end there. Little is made of the fact that Mr Parker called Ms Curran to say he had mentioned her name to ministry officials. Or that his office effectively organised job interviews for her. Nor is a huge amount made of the fact that one of Ms Curran's briefing notes to the minister focused on minimising criticism from "Greens" when climate change policy was announced. The report merely observes that departmental advice on communications should focus on the presentation of government policies and avoid the appearance of advice on political management. No attempt is made to connect what are not so much dots as bullet-points.
State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble took an equally softly-softly approach when reviewing the report. It was not, he noted, inappropriate for ministers to make suggestions to chief executives or officials, but they always created a risk that someone might feel they had to oblige. Mr Parker certainly made the correct noises after mentioning Ms Curran to officials. But subsequent developments do not sustain the argument that his was a passing, non-partisan reference. Contrary to the report's finding, they point more towards orchestration of the appointment of a political ally who contributed to a political agenda.
Nor do those developments suggest the independence of the public service was uppermost in most minds, including those of the unnamed officials who failed even to recognise the implications. Doubtless Mr Logan's resignation shortly before the report's release was meant to create the perception that someone was paying a penalty. He, however, was not even at the ministry when Ms Curran was hired. The reality is that, at virtually every turn in this affair, the public service has been ill-served.