Auditor-General's overview

Inquiry into immigration matters: Public sector recruitment processes involving Mary Anne Thompson and related issues (Volume 2).

In May 2008, the then Prime Minister and the then Minister of Immigration asked me to carry out an inquiry into a range of integrity concerns arising out of Immigration New Zealand, which is part of the Department of Labour.

The request was in response to various concerns that had been discussed in the public domain. These included:

  • the operations of Immigration New Zealand's Pacific Division and incidents involving certain senior personnel;
  • the conduct of Mary Anne Thompson, the former Deputy Secretary (Workforce) and head of Immigration New Zealand; and
  • how the concerns had been handled by others, including successive chief executives of the Department of Labour, the State Services Commissioners, and Ministers.

There were many different strands to the concerns, and in 2008 a number of separate reviews and investigations were beginning. The request to me sought a comprehensive review of events by an independent agency, so that Parliament and the public could be given an independent assessment of the way in which the sector had dealt with the concerns.

I am reporting my findings in two volumes:

  • Volume 1 covers Immigration New Zealand's visa and permit decision-making and related issues; and
  • Volume 2 (this volume) covers the public sector recruitment processes involving Ms Thompson and the handling of recruitment-related concerns.

Public sector recruitment processes involving Ms Thompson

When concerns were raised about matters of integrity in Immigration New Zealand, it was also suggested that Ms Thompson did not have the doctorate degree (PhD) that she claimed to have.

I included within the scope of my inquiry the public sector recruitment processes involving Ms Thompson. It is unusual for my Office to inquire into employment matters, particularly when they relate to individuals and to the recruitment of potential chief executives. But the concerns around Ms Thompson raised questions about whether employment responsibilities, including recruitment processes, were being managed effectively and efficiently. The way in which the public service recruits and manages its staff underpins its general ability to operate effectively, efficiently, and appropriately. It is also an activity in its own right that needs to be carried out well, at every level.

This volume of the report discusses the processes used by different public entities to recruit Ms Thompson, including how the uncertainty about her claim to have a PhD was handled. It aims to provide Parliament and the public with a clear description of events, including the steps that various people took and the judgements that were made at the time.

Recruitment processes from 1989 to 1998

The processes used to recruit Ms Thompson into roles at Manatū Māori, the Treasury, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) between 1989 and 1998 appear to have been reasonably standard. They reflected practices commonly used at the time and it seems unlikely that her PhD qualification was checked for these roles.

Process for recruitment of chief executive to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2004

In 2004, Ms Thompson applied for the position of chief executive at DPMC. She was a senior employee of DPMC at the time and the Acting Chief Executive. The process was carried out on behalf of the then State Services Commissioner, Michael Wintringham.

Ms Thompson withdrew part way through the recruitment process. We reviewed the part of the process involving Ms Thompson, and it appeared standard. During this process, Mr Wintringham became aware of an uncertainty about Ms Thompson's claim to hold a PhD. In response, he actively sought and received a direct assurance from Ms Thompson that she did have a PhD qualification, and took no further action at the time. He told us he considered that her withdrawal from the recruitment process meant that he no longer had a mandate to continue qualification checks.

With hindsight, it would have been preferable for Mr Wintringham to consider the issue more broadly in the light of the expectations on public service employers and in the context of the State Services Commissioner's overall responsibility for standards of integrity and conduct across the public sector, rather than as part of a single appointment process. In our view, Mr Wintringham should have taken the matter further, either personally or by passing the information on to his successor. However, we acknowledge the limitations that he believed he was under, that his term as State Services Commissioner was about to end, and that he was handling many other complex issues.

When the concerns about activities at Immigration New Zealand and Ms Thompson were publicly reported in May 2008, Mr Wintringham contacted the then State Services Commissioner about the previous uncertainty about Ms Thompson's PhD.

Process for recruitment to the Department of Labour, 2004

After withdrawing from the recruitment process for the role of chief executive of DPMC, Ms Thompson applied for the role of Deputy Secretary (Workforce) at the Department of Labour. The process appears to have been reasonably standard, but there were some aspects of the process that departed from good practice. I do not consider that these departures had a significant effect on the outcome of the process.

The Department of Labour used a consultant, a contestable process, an interview panel, and reference checks. Although Ms Thompson was interviewed by the panel, her late application bypassed the consultant's usual process without any documented rationale for this, and records were not retained by the Department of Labour. The offer of employment to Ms Thompson was made before reference checks were carried out, and the offer was not conditional on the outcome of the reference checks. Even though Ms Thompson had previous public sector experience, this deviated from my expectations of good practice. However, my findings are limited to this one recruitment process.

The then chief executive of the Department of Labour and Ms Thompson's employer, Dr James Buwalda, became aware from Mr Wintringham in 2007 that a question had previously arisen about Ms Thompson's PhD. This was in the context of an external review Dr Buwalda was commissioning into some immigration decisions for family members of Ms Thompson (discussed in Volume 1). At this time, Mr Wintringham was a member of the Department of Labour's Audit Committee. Dr Buwalda did not believe that there was an outstanding issue to be resolved, and so did not do anything with this information. With hindsight, it would have been helpful for this information to have been passed on to Dr Buwalda's successor.

Ministers' knowledge of the PhD uncertainty

Ministers were not aware of the PhD uncertainty until just before it became public in May 2008. That is consistent with the norms governing when it is appropriate for Ministers to be informed about employment matters in the public service.

Timely reminder for all employers within public entities

This case illustrates that it is important for all public sector employers to consider the general and specific approach they take to verifying the information presented in a curriculum vitae (CV). They also need to be aware of the link between these procedural steps in recruitment processes and the broad collective role they play in safeguarding the integrity of the public sector.

The extent of checks required is likely to vary depending on the seniority of the role and the nature of the experience and qualifications needed. The applicant's previous work history may also be relevant. However, each entity within the public sector is a distinct organisation, and each chief executive is responsible for their employment practices. An individual having previously worked in the public sector cannot be a reason for not carrying out a proper recruitment process with the appropriate checks.

It is reasonable to expect a more robust approach to be taken for chief executive and senior positions than for other positions, given the leadership and management role they have in an organisation. Although the checking processes may at times appear mundane, those making senior appointments need to be aware of the risk that incorrect information in a CV potentially raises a question about an applicant's integrity. For senior public sector roles, that is a risk that needs to be scrupulously managed. In fairness to the individuals, it is important to dispel a question if it is unfounded. For the organisation, and for the sector as a whole, it is important to ensure that any integrity risk raised by a credible source is addressed.

Conflicts of interest

When I started my inquiry, I knew that the Deputy Auditor-General and some of my staff members had conflicts of interest with this inquiry. To manage these conflicts of interest, I ensured that these individuals were not involved in establishing the terms of reference or conducting the inquiry and changed relevant reporting lines for the duration of the inquiry. The Deputy Auditor-General was interviewed as part of the inquiry investigations. The interview was led by a barrister whom we instructed for this purpose.

I thank the many people who co-operated with this inquiry.

K B Brady
Controller and Auditor-General

27 May 2009

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