Parliamentary Service engages top PR firm

Parliamentary Service has engaged a top-tier PR firm following a mass exodus of staff and negative media attention.

It has enlisted the help of Hot Metal, the Wellington PR firm founded and directed by former journalist and strategic communications specialist Mark Russell.

The decision to bring a corporate PR firm onboard comes after a series of damning Stuff stories relating to high staff turnover and cultural issues within Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk.

A total of 37 staff have left Parliamentary Service since December, with more than a dozen talking to Stuff about a culture of bullying and harassment that affected their health and wellbeing.

Both Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk have denied a bullying culture exists.

Parliamentary Service provides assistance to MPs, while employing and supporting their staff. Parliamentary Service also manages some of Wellington’s historic buildings.

The Office of the Clerk advised MPs on parliamentary procedure and legislation, as well as running select committees.

Russell refused to comment on his firm’s relationship with Parliamentary Service, and referred all questions to Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero.

Gonzalez-Montero, who is the former Deputy Clerk of the House of Representatives, took over the general manager role in January for a five-year term. He replaced former general manager David Stevenson.

Gonzalez-Montero said Russell was engaged as a contractor to cover a shortfall in the communications team, and provide cover for a senior communications advisor who was going on leave.

“The contractor came on board in a limited capacity a couple of weeks ago to ensure a smooth handover,” he said in an emailed statement.

He refused to comment further on any cultural issues within Parliamentary Service, or how these were being addressed, until the release of the Francis Review into bullying and sexual harassment in Parliament.

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard launched the full-scale independent review into bullying and harassment in Parliament in November, following a raft of serious incidents.

Incidents of bullying and harassment have long been a feature within Parliament, but this is the first independent review of this type to delve into systemic and cultural issues.

Last year, Labour’s Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her ministerial portfolios following a physical altercation with a staff member, and ousted National MP Jami-Lee Ross was accused of bullying and sexual harassment by multiple women.

In 2018, there were also revelations about sexual harassment and bullying in New Zealand law firms, including Russell McVeagh, which has a similar workplace structure to Parliament in terms of the long hours, hierarchy and a bubble environment.

The independent external review has been carried out by Debbie Francis, who has experience doing similar work with Police and Defence. Francis has also carried out past reviews of Parliamentary Service.

In November, Mallard said the review is almost certain to turn up serious problems.

Meanwhile, Francis said she expected to find “less-than-acceptable” behaviours given the hours, stress, power imbalances, and the bubble environment.

A health and safety review of Parliamentary Services was always on the cards, but recent incidents in New Zealand and a similar review of the British Parliament led to Mallard stepping up both the urgency of the review and the level of independent resources needed to carry out a thorough and meaningful inquiry.

The outcome of the review is due to be released this month.

"We were assured that there are procedures to ensure that information received by way of exit interviews and staff surveys is used to improve culture within the Parliamentary Service. The Service has developed plans and initiatives to support staff retention, and continues to do so."

Ahead of the announcement of the review, Francis carried out a performance improvement framework (PIF) review of Parliamentary Service.

The 2018 review noted Parliamentary Service had not yet undertaken a systematic review of its culture and values.

But she noted the modernisation of people and culture since the previous PIF review in 2014.

“At the time of the previous PIF review, the Service confronted some serious challenges regarding people management. Unplanned staff turnover was about 25 percent in the 2014/15 year, the recruitment brand was weak and culture reviews showed poor results. At the same period, the HR function was old fashioned and low in client focus.”

But in the 2018 financial year Parliamentary Service reported staff turnover of 16 percent, compared to a rate of 9.4 percent in the previous financial year.

The Governance and Administration Committee questioned the high turnover rate.

"We were told that the main reasons given for departures included external job opportunities, relocations, and remuneration. We were told that, despite the non-political roles of corporate staff, staff may be more inclined to depart following the post-election transition," the committee report said.

"We were assured that there are procedures to ensure that information received by way of exit interviews and staff surveys is used to improve culture within the Parliamentary Service. The Service has developed plans and initiatives to support staff retention, and continues to do so."

Meanwhile, the Office of the Clerk had staff turnover of 29 percent in 2018.

Both departments have recently been through restructuring.

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