Ministers are powerful and important, but they need support to do their job better. Trust in our democracy demands it

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his new ministry during the swearing in at Government House. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Bob McMullan, director, ANU Crawford Leadership Forum and Sean Innis, director, ANU Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub

Ministers play a critical role in our democracy. Their decisions define the national interest. They are responsible for running important portfolio areas, even though they’re unlikely to have professional expertise in that area. And they make complex long-term decisions that balance often strongly competing views, often using an incomplete evidence base.

Despite all this responsibility, and power, ministers arrive in the job with no training. There’s no school for ministers.

On becoming a minister, support appears from everywhere. Public servants appear, ready to advise and implement, starting with an incoming ministerial briefing which often outlines a large and carefully designed program of work.  Stakeholders appear, explaining why their particular needs and perspectives are the most important. Experts appear, providing their interpretation of what the evidence means and what should be done about it. And ministerial colleagues appear, demanding time and attention as part of Cabinet decision-making or in the contest for government resources and priorities.

Ministers must also get used to a new balance between duties as a local member, being a parliamentarian and their all-encompassing ministerial duties. In reality, ministers have two full-time jobs. And that’s without considering their family life.

The role required — demanded — of ministers is difficult and delicate, requiring a balance of skill and judgement. The functioning of our democracy demands that we provide the best possible support for ministers to successfully undertake the role. This is not just in the interest of any particular government, it’s in all of our interests.

Let’s look at the supporting mechanisms for ministers:

Ministerial offices

A key component of support comes from the minister’s personal office. Just as ministers create a vital connection between executive and electorate, ministerial offices play a key role in connecting ministers to public service departments, stakeholders and parliament. Or so the theory goes.

Ministerial office staff represent an extension of ministerial authority. Staff positions carry no actual power, beyond the implied authority of the minister. In practice, however, these are powerful positions – often controlling the flow of information to and from a minister, as well as being the last voice heard before decisions are taken. It’s rare for a public servant to take a message or request from a ministerial staffer as anything but an instruction from the minister. This substantially increases the flow of instructions and priorities emanating from the minister to the public service.

Like ministers, most ministerial staff receive no training and little on-going support. Unlike the public service, whose professional standards and development are oversighted by the Australian Public Service Commission, ministerial staff have no body to set and oversee professional standards, or provide guidance and training.

Given the importance of the ministerial office role, this lack of support is surprising.  Relatively few ministerial staffers start with a detailed understanding of their role and how it fits with that of the minister or the public service. Staff work very long hours and have little control over their time. The work environment tends to be competitive, highly reactive and emotionally charged. Burn-out rates are high. This environment suits some, but also results in people self-selecting out of the ministerial staffing role.

The role played by ministerial office staff has increased dramatically over time. Office sizes have increased and there has been a shift in the balance of power between public servants and office staff.  The staffing of offices has also changed – away from the appointment of trusted senior public servants and towards the appointment of partisan staff.

For some, this has created a new layer of government. The concern implicitly being that, rather than simply being a support for ministers, ministerial offices have become a new force in our democracy.

The Public Service

The Australian Public Service tends to view its role as being the focal point of support for ministers. And in practice, despite the growing importance of the ministerial office and the increasing contestability of the advice and delivery of services public servants provide, this remains largely true and emphasises the importance of the current APS review.

Public service departments provide the bulk of the policy advice, and almost all of the implementation capability ministers use in discharging their responsibilities. While the public service’s role is contestable, it remains relatively rare for ministerial decisions to be taken without the benefit of such public service advice.

Administratively, departments provide support to help establish and ensure the smooth running of ministerial offices. Guidelines are produced by the public service on ministerial standards and the use of taxpayer funding and services, and the Department of Finance is responsible for accounting for work-related spending by ministers and their offices.

While important, this support is “for” the minister rather than support for “how to be” a minister.  Here, the public service’s role is much less clear. Secretaries can play a subtle role in helping new ministers understand and learn their jobs – but by necessity, this is done informally and carefully to ensure that any guidance remains within appropriate bounds. It also depends very much on the relationship between the individual minister and secretary.

Political Parties

Political parties also play a role. Most parties in opposition spend at least some time and effort preparing for government before an election.  While the bulk of the effort goes into defining the policies to put in place if elected, parties also generally have some regard to how to support new members of parliament (if not ministers).

The four major political parties also come together via the Australian Political Exchange Council to provide support for young political leaders (primarily members of parliament) to study overseas political systems. Support is provided for delegates from overseas to study Australia’s system. This collaborative venture is funded from the Commonwealth budget and supported by the Department of Finance.

Once appointed as minister, however, the role steps a member of parliament beyond that of party member and the loyalty to the crown required of all members and senators. The oath or affirmation taken by ministers reminds them to serve the people of Australia and, by implication, not the narrow interests of their party or coalition.  This change limits the role political parties should play in supporting ministers.

Is current support good enough?

A chorus of voices has been expressing concern about the quality of support provided to ministers, most of it focused on training for ministers and the role of ministerial advisors.

The current Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, recently linked the quality of ministerial support to falling trust in government. He argues for more ministerial training: “I cannot conceive of any serious company or organisation,” he says, “where its senior leadership or its board would require people to take on important roles without at least some form of training.”

The ongoing review of the Australian Public Service also calls for practical induction and ongoing training for ministers and their staff, as well as easier access for ministers to APS expertise and greater clarity on the role of ministerial advisors. This call was informed by an expert paper prepared for the Review by the Australian New Zealand School of Government which outlines a vision for 2030 where every minister will be supported to prepare for their responsibilities before they assume office and where there would be greater clarity and transparency around the roles of partisan staff.  ANZSOG’s experts see, among other options, a potential role for an expanded ministerial office with greater policy capacity, but also greater transparency and accountability.

What should happen?

The calls for change coming from the APS Review, the Secretary of PM&C and ANZSOG’s experts, deserve serious consideration. At the heart of these calls is a well-founded concern that the current system is not serving ministers and, ultimately, democracy well.

Principle One: Focus on improving ministerial decisions and actions:

At the end of the day, any new arrangements should have a clear focus on how they will improve the ability of ministers to take well-informed and timely decisions and actions. Put simply, change needs to “work” for ministers.

Principle two: Ministers should be encouraged to undertake appropriate training, but should make their own decisions

The provision of training for ministers is a core feature of almost all proposals to improve the performance of government. Martin Parkinson’s comparison between government and the corporate world is telling. Assisting ministers (and their staff) to have a better understanding of their responsibilities and the structures that support them would doubtless improve government.

Mandating ministers to undertake training, however, goes too far. At the end of the day, ministers should be free to make their own decisions about the training they need. As desirable and useful as training may be, ministers are very time constrained and deserve an opportunity to consider and set their own priorities and needs. They are, after all, ultimately accountable to the electorate in a way neither their office nor the public service is.

Principle Three: Training should be designed and delivered in a way that best suits (future) ministers

Training will only be effective if it is embraced by the ministers themselves. Support should be designed with ministerial needs and constraints in mind.

The timing and design of training and support seems key. Evidence suggests that ministers, once appointed, may not embrace formal training. ANZSOG’s paper notes, for example, that minister’s have been “resistant to suggestions they might undertake some form of professional development”. Experience from the UK’s Institute for Government, which is independent from the UK Civil Service, is similar with the Institute concluding that a bespoke approach is needed.

An open mind should also be brought to how and when to provide ministerial education and training, and careful consideration should be given to who is responsible. Proposals focused on training provided by the public service are without doubt well-meaning and might be the best way to go, but assuming that ministers would respond positively to training provided by the APS needs to be road-tested and alternative approaches developed if needed. The objective should be on making high quality training available and timed to suit the needs of future ministers, not where it comes from.

One approach, for example, would be to offer training to all parliamentarians who aspire to be a minister or would like to better understand the role they play. It’s possible that offering training in advance of appointment may increase the likelihood of participation, and could become a standard way for parties to prepare members for government. The Australian Political Exchange Council mentioned above provides one possible vehicle for engaging in further discussions with parliamentarians and the major parties on the design of a such a scheme.

Principle Four: Ministerial staff should act and be supported as professionals

Ministerial offices are the least defined, least accountable and least supported part of executive government. This needs to change.

Clarifying the role of ministerial office staff, as called for by the APS review, is critical. This clarification should reinforce the role of staff as an extension of the minister, not as a separate entity, consistent with the Minister’s oath to serve the people of Australia. Increasing the number of staff in offices with public service experience is also desirable and should be pursued.

But these changes are not sufficient. Ministerial staff need (and deserve) to be supported as professionals and should be required to operate under professional standards in a similar way to public servants – not the same, but certainly similar.

To achieve this, a body should be established to establish and monitor adherence to professional standards for ministerial staff. The body should also take responsibility for identifying and meeting the overarching training needs of ministerial staff, including induction training (which, unlike for ministers, should be compulsory). And finally, the body should be responsible for supporting best practice implementation of workplace health and safety practice within the ministerial office environment, in the context of a broader responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of ministerial staff.

The location and exact responsibilities of this body warrant further consideration. But under any model, it is important that the body be independent of the Australian Public Service to respect the now entrenched reality that ministerial offices are an extension of the minister rather than an extension of the APS.  One model might involve establishment of the body as an independent entity within the Parliament, similar to the Parliamentary Budget Office. An alternative would be to establish a statutory authority that is clearly independent of APS control, perhaps in a similar way to the Electoral Commission.

To ensure an ongoing focus on ensuring a strong and appropriate connection between ministerial offices and the APS, the body should meet regularly with the Australian Public Service Commission. Together these bodies should be responsible for defining best practice guidelines on the relationship between ministerial offices and the APS.

And finally, to be effective any body would need to be clearly accountable to Parliament, non-partisan and have a process of liaison with the major political parties to ensure ongoing confidence in its services.

In summary

In the scheme of electoral priorities, changes to improve ministerial support is likely to rate lowly.  This is understandable but misguided.  Investing in the quality of executive government will never register alongside health care or taxes as areas of public priority.  But it is important, and deserves a real investment of time and effort from government. Our falling trust in democracy demands it.

Bob McMullan is a former Minister for Trade and National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party.  He is currently Director of the ANU Crawford Leadership Forum.

Sean Innis is inaugural Director of the Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub at the Australian National University. Before joining ANU, he was Special Adviser to the Productivity Commission and held senior executive positions in a number of APS departments.

The Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub was established by ANU in 2018. Its mission is to maximise the contribution ANU makes to policy discourse and making. In doing so, the Hub is committed to facilitating high-quality civic discourse about issues which will shape the long-term future of our society.

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