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Public service employers need to do more to stop sexual harm by staff. Here’s how.

When doctors, teachers, police and care workers take advantage of society’s most vulnerable, the results can be devastating. But how are public employers responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment? Not well enough, writes researcher Carrie Buckmaster, who offers some recommendations for change.

November 7 2018 was New Zealand’s first ‘Public Service Day’: a day to celebrate the men and women working across the country to provide the services which keep society ticking along. They teach our children, care for us when we are sick, and act as a safety net in some of our darkest moments. Public servants are the ‘good guys’ – but they are also human, with human failings, holding positions where they have access to, and power over, society’s most vulnerable citizens.

It may be hard to believe, but there has been little recognition of sexual harassment in the New Zealand public service until comparatively recently. The State Services Commission began offering guidance for public organisations on sexual harassment in 2015, after the resignation of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive Roger Sutton following sexual harassment claims.

We are still learning how to talk about and address sexual harm, and it is understandable that we have not yet had an open and honest public conversation about how best to manage sexual harm caused by a small number of our public servants. Conversations about sexual harm are difficult to have. But we should not avoid the conversation – public safety should always be held in higher regard than a public organisation’s reputation.

An interesting organisation to study is New Zealand Police, who have made substantial progress in improving their culture over the past decade. In many ways, the police are a great example for the rest of the public sector, particularly in relation to their strategic recruitment drive for diversity.

In 2017, the Office of the Auditor General released their final report of the ten years of monitoring police conduct since Dame Margaret Bazley’s Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct. This report puts significant emphasis on how the police have improved the way they treat adult victims of sexual assault.

There is less emphasis on what progress may have been made (or not) to better prevent, detect, respond to, and publicly report on, sexual misconduct by police officers. This is perhaps surprising, given that the trigger for the COI was multiple allegations of police officers pack raping vulnerable young people. To this day it is not clear whether all complaints of sexual harm caused by police officers are investigated independently outside of the police.

This year has seen both allegations of, and convictions for, sexual harm from teachers, doctors, and police. There may be many more incidents which have gone unreported. It is unclear whether complaints of harm from employees of private companies contracted to deliver public services are subject to less public scrutiny and accountability than public organisations. However, the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) by private companies in sexual harm cases is beginning to garner concern, with reports of cases where complainants feel bound by a non-disclosure agreement they did not want to sign.

When boys and girls, and men and women, experience sexual harm from rogue civil servants, they do not always report it. When they do, the response they receive can be additionally bruising and may not result in meaningful change. Part of the reason for this is that processes for responding to complaints and reports of sexual harm are underdeveloped and variable across the public sector. My research shows that central government can indeed do more to help public organisations prevent and respond to sexual harm enabled by public service work.

Improving State Services Commission advice to public managers on how to respond to sexual harm would result in more consistent and effective responses to complaints and reports. This advice could help public managers to:

  • categorise sexual harm complaints and reports, and identify where criminal sexual assault may have occurred;
  • recognise the power balance between individuals and understand its effect on the nature of situations; factor that power balance into training materials, and take it into account when deciding on appropriate disciplinary action;
  • ensure contracts with third-party service providers prevent NDAs with people reporting sexual harm;
  • conduct thorough risk assessments, and identify and address environmental risk factors;
  • stop relying too heavily on internal mechanisms, and bring in external help to meet training, risk assessment, response and remediation needs.

Establishing a central register to record complaints and reports of sexual harm related to public service work, would enable open access to de-identified information about the number of incidents, the type of incidents per organisation, and the organisation’s responses.  With this information, an informed public can trust that the public service is handling sexual harm well – and drive change where it is needed.

The article ‘How Could Central Government Better Respond to Sexual Harm in the Public Service?‘ is out now in the November issue of Policy Quarterly, a free public policy journal co-produced by the Institute for Government and Policy Studies and the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington.

Carrie Buckmaster is studying for a Master’s in Public Management at the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington.


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