Part 3: Different types of conflicts of interest

Managing conflicts of interest: A guide for the public sector.

The seriousness of a conflict, and the type of risks it gives rise to, for you personally and the organisation you work for, will vary depending on the nature of the conflict and the context in which it arises. Conflicts of interest can arise in a wide variety of ways. In all cases, the underlying concern is the same – that is, ensuring that decisions are made impartially, and managing the risk of bias, or the appearance of bias.

To work out how to manage a conflict, it can be helpful to categorise it as a:

The situation you are facing might not fall neatly into one category. There are also situations where you might have more than one type of conflict. But, if you are trying to figure out whether you have a conflict and, if so, what to do about it, analysing your situation by putting it in one of these four categories can be a useful starting point.

In addition to these four categories, you also need to consider potential conflicts created by the possession of official information. The Serious Fraud Office often sees among public sector employees a failure to appreciate that it can be an offence to use information acquired in an official capacity for the personal benefit of that official or another.5 As we noted earlier, public sector officials are often held to a higher standard than in the private sector and it is important that officials do not take advantage of information acquired in their official role to make a gain either for themselves or others.

In all situations, your conflict might be actual or perceived – that is, you might have an actual conflict, or there could be no conflict, but to an outside observer it looks like there is.

Members of the public do not often have access to all the relevant facts, and cannot know what is in your mind or what your motivations are. They can judge only by appearances and information in the public domain. That means perceived conflicts are often as risky as actual conflicts, and you need to take just as much care to identify and manage them.

Financial conflicts of interest

A financial conflict of interest is any situation where you stand to gain or lose financially from a decision you are asked to make.

Financial interests might be direct or indirect. There are also situations where you might be deemed to share the same financial interests as another person or organisation. For example, you might be deemed to share any financial interests your spouse or partner has, or those of any business you are involved in.

A financial interest need not involve cash changing hands directly. It could, for example, be an effect on the value of land or shares that you own, or the turnover of a business you are involved in.

Financial conflicts of interest are often treated more strictly than non-financial conflicts of interest. For example:

  • Under the common law, any financial conflict of interest (except one that is trivial) automatically disqualifies a public official from participating in a decision.
  • The Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act prohibits members of local authorities and office holders in other specified public organisations6 from discussing or voting on any matter in which they have a financial interest, unless their interest is "in common with the public".

If you have a financial conflict of interest:

  • you should treat it seriously, even if it seems trivial to you; and
  • you need to make sure you are familiar with any specific rules that apply to the management of financial conflicts of interest in the organisation you work in.

Non-financial conflicts of interest

A non-financial conflict of interest is any situation where you are not affected financially by a decision but are affected in some other way that might make you biased or appear to be biased.

A non-financial conflict of interest might arise, for example, from a family relationship, friendship, or any other sort of personal relationship.

Non-financial conflicts can also arise if you are a member of, or involved with, an organisation outside of your work.

Under the common law, a non-financial conflict of interest does not automatically exclude you from participating in a decision. It will depend how serious the conflict is. That does not mean non-financial interests are always less serious than financial conflicts. However, because there is not an automatic assumption of bias, there is generally more room for judgement about how serious the conflict is and how it should be managed.

Interests of relatives and friends

Considering the interests of relatives and friends requires careful judgement. If they have an interest that overlaps with the duties of an employee or office holder, then there might be a conflict of interest.

Specific statutory rules might also apply. For example:

  • for members of local authorities covered by the Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act, the financial interests of a spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner are regulated; and
  • for matters covered by the Crown Entities Act 2004, the interests of a spouse, civil union partner, de facto partner, child, or parent are regulated.

In general, for situations not covered by specific statutory rules, we consider that, at least, the interests of any dependants or relatives who live with the employee or office holder must be treated as effectively the same as if the interest was held by the employee or office holder. In other words, if interests held by these relatives overlap with an employee or office holder's official duties, there will be a conflict of interest.

For other relatives, it will depend on the closeness of the relationship and the degree to which the public organisation's decision or activity could directly or significantly affect them. (Part 4 covers assessing the seriousness of a conflict of interest.)

Close relationships can vary. A relationship could be close because of the directness of the blood or marriage link, or because of the amount of association. There are no clear rules but it will usually be wise not to participate if relatives are significantly affected.

Some cultures, including Māori culture, have a broad concept of family. In our view, a conflict of interest will not often arise where the connection is a common ancestor, such as another iwi or hapū member. Sometimes an iwi connection could create a conflict of interest in and of itself. For example, if the person is working for a public organisation on a Treaty settlement where they are likely to end up as a beneficiary, this might create a conflict of interest. In this situation, the interest is personal.

Questions of judgement and degree also arise when considering friends and other associates. However, in our view, it is unrealistic to expect the employee or office holder to have absolutely no connection with or knowledge of the person concerned. New Zealand is a small and interconnected society. Simply being acquainted with someone, having worked with them, or having had official dealings with them is not something we would consider to cause a problem. However, a longstanding, close, or recent association or dealing might do.

Care should also be taken with interests held by people who have funded the election campaigns of elected members.

Where the public organisation's decision or activity affects an organisation that a relative or friend works for, it could be reasonable to take into account the nature of their position. For example, it might be material whether they are a senior executive or owner, on the one hand, or whether they are a junior staff member who is not personally involved in the matter and who would not be personally affected by the decision, on the other.

Conflict of roles

A conflict of roles can arise in any situation where you are a decision-maker for two different organisations about the same matter.

In some ways, a conflict of roles is just another type of non-financial conflict. We have given it its own category because a conflict of roles is likely to prompt different issues than other types of conflicts. The question you need to consider is not so much whether your interests conflict, but whether the interests of the two organisations you work for do.

A conflict of roles is also more likely to prompt questions about conflicting duties. For example:

  • If both organisations are involved in the same project or transaction, and you owe a duty of confidentiality to both, can you be effectively involved in making decisions for both organisations about that project or transaction?
  • Can you fulfil a fiduciary duty to one organisation (for example, as a company director or trustee) when deciding something if you owe a fiduciary duty, or some other sort of duty of loyalty, to the other organisation?

Sometimes you might be involved in a second organisation quite deliberately. You might have been appointed specifically to represent the first organisation or hold office in another organisation because of your position in the first organisation. For example, if you are an employee of a Crown entity, you might have been appointed as its representative on a community trust that the Crown entity funds.

In those situations, it might be consistent with your role to participate at meetings of the first organisation in some matters that concern the second organisation, especially if that second role gives you specialised knowledge that it would be useful to contribute. This might be legitimate – and mutually beneficial – because for many matters there will be no risk that you could advance any private interest, show partiality, or otherwise act in a way that was not in the first organisation's best interests.

However, you must be careful not to assume that this is always so. Conflicts of interest could still arise with some decisions. This is especially likely where you might be under a legal duty (for example, as a director or trustee) to act in the best interests of one organisation. For example, a conflict of interest might arise when one organisation is making a decision about funding the other, its continued existence, or on a formal submission it has made.

The main points to consider with a conflict of roles are that:

  • you need to be clear in your own mind what your obligations are to each role or organisation;
  • you need to be confident that both organisations are clear about what your obligations are to each of them and, if necessary, have a protocol that explains this; and
  • you need to always be alert for situations where the interests of the two organisations might conflict, even if they generally do not.


Predetermination is any situation where you are making a decision about something and there is a risk that people will think you made up your mind before you considered all of the evidence. Suggestions of predetermination usually arise because of something you have previously said or done.

Technically, predetermination is not a form of conflict of interest. However, the concept of predetermination is derived from the common law on bias, so we have covered it in this guide. The underlying risk with predetermination is the same as for conflicts of interest – that is, the risk that you will "taint" a decision you are involved in making because you are biased or appear to be biased.

As a public sector employee or officeholder, you are entitled to have your own personal views. Indeed, you might often be expected to use your opinions or ideas in carrying out your work.

However, sometimes having strong views about a matter can create a risk of prejudice or predetermination. You might be treated as biased if your behaviour, beliefs, or what you say indicates that you made up your mind about a matter before it came to be heard or deliberated on – in other words, if you have a "closed mind" or fixed position and are not willing to fairly consider all relevant information and arguments.

The seriousness of the risk will depend on the context, such as what your role is and what sort of decision you are being asked to make.

For quasi-judicial decisions, decision-makers are held to an exacting standard of impartiality and objectivity. Quasi-judicial decisions are those that directly affect the legal rights, interests, and obligations of an individual or small group of individuals. Quasi-judicial decisions can be, for example, a decision to grant a permit, confer a specific benefit, or impose a punishment.

In other situations, it might nevertheless be acceptable for employees or officeholders to bring personal or previously formed views to decision-making – for example, when:

  • discussing issues and exchanging ideas with members of the public;
  • developing a preliminary position, especially where a proposal is being consulted on or where the public organisation is expected to perform an advocacy role;
  • already holding – and perhaps having expressed – strong personal views about the matter, for decisions that are made by an elected or representative body and are political in nature or involve high-level policy-making;
  • promoting a particular view during debate in public hearings on a matter; and
  • drawing on your own knowledge or experience, especially for decisions that are entrusted to particular people because of their special expertise in the subject.

General personal factors, such as an employee's or officer holder's ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, political, or philosophical leanings, wealth, or professional background, will not usually constitute predetermination, unless they give rise to a strongly held personal belief that directly relates to the matter being considered.

When dealing with predetermination:

  • You are expected to have an open mind, but that does not mean an empty mind.
  • Pay particular attention to the type of decision you are being asked to make. You need to be particularly careful about predetermination in situations where you are making decisions that will affect the legal rights, interests, and obligations of an individual or small group of individuals, as opposed to broad policy decisions that do not have an immediate effect on individuals.
  • Unlike many types of conflicts, the risks associated with predetermination are nearly always under your control. It is generally about managing what you do or say, so you do not later put yourself in a situation where your participation in a decision will put that decision at risk.

5: Section 105A of the Crimes Act 1961.

6: For a list of organisations, see our good practice guide, Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act 1968: A guide for members of local authorities on managing financial conflicts of interest.