When the guard changes: how to manage a new government

By Chas Savage

November 26, 2014

Governments come, go and are supplanted. Ministers come, go and are replaced.

For a professional, apolitical public service, managing a change in government or ministers can be a … challenge.

Established relationships are torn asunder. Patterns of behaviour between ministers and departments, which had been stable and efficient, are broken.

Now comes the challenge of managing an unsettled and fraught environment. To start the relationship well and keep it positive and real, we draw on the ideas of public value, operational constraints and the “authorising” environment.

These were concepts first conjoined by Professor Mark Moore of Harvard University. He defined public value as the merit of a particular policy or program initiative. For public value to be realised, the operating constraints — available resources, funds, systems, technology — must be non-binding and enable the particular initiative to be delivered.

Moore formalised the relationship between public value and the authorising environment — the “collective, political aspirations” of those who have an abiding interest. Both have to be aligned. If not, if the authorising environment is hostile to a particular initiative, then the prospects for realising an initiative that generates public value are slight indeed.

With a change in government or ministers, understand that the authorising environment has fundamentally shifted. And public servants, yet again, have to demonstrate their worth as most trusted adviser and confidant.

Therefore bear a few things in mind.

First, governments and ministers deserve frank and fearless advice. The fact that they do not always ask does not mean they have no need for expert advice.

That said, however, here comes the fine print.

“… newly appointed ministers come with their own views; invariably they have their own networks, ideas and opinions.”

The second point to remember is that newly appointed ministers come with their own views; invariably they have their own networks, ideas and opinions. And while all newly elected governments come to office with commitments and slogans in hand, some come laden with policies.

Overnight, the advice provided by departments must align with these new commitments. This requires careful thinking and steady advice: commitments are to be transformed into policies, and policies into plans for implementation. The established order of things must be revised.

Third, focus on solutions not problems. Some commitments may be difficult to implement immediately. How are solutions to be delivered? How are they to be sequenced and staged?

Fourth, new ministers and governments bring to their work a different world view. The prism through which they see the world and process information is different. Is your new minister an ideologue? A pragmatist? A wheeler-dealer who was raised up by the political machine? How do they process information? What interests and engages them? What do they want to achieve? What are they passionate about?

Fifth, new ministers mean new advisers, some of whom will be experienced, intelligent and competent. Departments must quickly and authoritatively establish proper boundaries and effective relationships.

Finally — and this applies in spades when a government changes — in the materials you provide, be sensitive to the desire of the new minister to champion the policies, ideas and approach of the new government. In the eyes of the newly elected, there is nothing deader than the policies and initiatives of a defeated government, no matter their merits. What is to be binned, quarantined, renamed, relaunched?

To manage the change of government is always a tricky business, but to do it peacefully, calmly and efficiently reflects well on us, our democracy and our culture of government.

The king is dead! Long live the queen!

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7 years ago

Agree with all that Chas. Mark Moore has helped us all understand the policy challenges of government. What you have said should be widely read and with profit.

But what if repeated changes of government, churning of senior executives, and deep cutting reorganisations have cut public service capabilities? And what about the tendency of some ministers and their staffs (not to mention some public servants too) to see every policy question as a short term political one? Politics can now penetrate a long way into a department but without much more than a short term partisan tactical perspective.

The political parties need to lift their game if the public service is to do its job properly.

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