Prime Minister Chris Hipkins defends increase in communications staff since Labour came in power

By Giles Dexter of RNZ

The prime minister has defended the rise in the number of communications staff in the public service, following attacks from the National Party.

Data compiled by National, and verified by RNZ, showed the number of communications staff in the core public service had risen to 532, as shown in the 2021-22 annual reviews from 31 different departments and ministries.

It is an increase of 7.5 percent on the previous year, and a 56.87 percent increase since Labour took office.

That was despite new guidance from the Public Service Commission to establish a more consistent and transparent definition of what a communications professional was, in the process removing some roles like marketing specialists and community liaison advisers.

Nine departments or ministries explicitly mentioned applying the guidance in their reports. Four reported large decreases in their staff numbers, while five reported increases under the new definition.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said the government had become fixated on "largesse", and lost focus on getting things done.

"It's absolutely outrageous. We want the focus to be on delivering outcomes, and getting the resources from the centre and the bureaucracy out to the front-line services so we can improve outcomes for New Zealanders."

National public service spokesperson Simeon Brown told Morning Report the staff's role was to "spin the government's agenda", which the prime minister rejected.

"This isn't about spin doctoring, it's not about working with the media," Chris Hipkins said.

Hipkins, who was Minister for the Public Service for the period covered in the report, said the number of staff working with the media had stayed "pretty much the same" since Labour entered government, and the growth had come in roles directly engaging with the public.

"Citizens, members of the public, make much greater use of social media and online forums to interact with the public service. They want to know someone's on the other end, answering those questions that they're posing."

He expected the public service to be running a ruler over all of their expenditure on a regular basis, and make sure they were delivering good value for money for the taxpayer, he said.

The Public Service Association (PSA), the union representing the communications staff, said National failed to understand the importance of the government communicating with the public, and were undermining confidence in the public service.

"I don't think it's unreasonable to expect an increase in the numbers of people who are distributing information. What really concerns us is the language that's used to basically denigrate people who are doing what is really important work," said PSA national secretary Kerry Davies.

The roles were "critical" in providing timely and factual information about people's entitlements, dealing with emergency situations, and broadcasting public health messages to a diverse audience, and in a digital age, Davies said.

"At the moment, we have a real issue about dealing with disinformation, and making sure that there's credibility and confidence in public messaging. Anything that is said to undermine that can't be good for the public interest."

The PSA said the makeup of the public service had grown in proportion with population and workforce growth since 2017, but public service pay had fallen behind private sector pay.

The Public Service Commission said communications staff made up less than a percent of the entire public service workforce.