New training to help public servants and ministers’ offices work together

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday September 22, 2020


The Australian Public Service Commission is developing material to help public servants and ministerial offices work better together, in response to the findings of the Thodey Review of the APS.

The APSC on Monday said specialised guidance and training would “facilitate shared understanding” between the APS and ministers’ offices about their respective roles.

“These roles are, and need to be, separate and distinct; but they work best as a partnership, focused on working effectively together to provide ministers with quality advice of the highest standard, and driving implementation to deliver on government priorities,” it said.

The APSC will develop the material with the help of the Department of Finance and a Ministerial Liaison Reference Panel.

The panel includes Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary of governance and APS reform Stephanie Foster, trade minister Simon Birmingham’s chief of staff Rachael Thompson, Julia Gillard’s former chief of staff Ben Hubbard, John Howard’s former principal adviser Tony Nutt, and former chief of staff to New Zealand prime ministers John Key and Bill English, Wayne Eagleson.

The APSC said the group would “ensure the training and guidance has longevity, is suitable for a diversity of audiences, and reflects the lived experience of senior officials and ministerial offices”.

Read more: Bureaucrat in the ministerial office: career risk or boon?

The 2019 Thodey Review argued that it was “vital that advisers and public servants work well together as part of an effective partnership between the APS and ministers”. It noted that in 2015, former chief of staff to Greg Combet, Allan Behm, voiced the need for greater shared understanding between the two workforces.

“It is essential that the chief of staff ensures that the ministerial staff … value and respect the talented and hard-working people who make up the public service. Equally, the chief of staff needs to ensure that senior officials understand what both the government and the minister expect of them,” he wrote in his book, No, Minister: So you want to be a chief of staff?

The new guidance would help APS employees engage effectively with ministers and their advisers, the APSC said, with training programs in the works for the Senior Executive Service and other employees that have close engagement with ministerial offices.

Additional guidance materials would be made available to every APS employee so they can understand their role and the role of their minister and ministerial advisers.

Guidance and training would also be provided to staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984, to “strengthen their understanding of the role of the APS, and ensure a shared language across these two vital components of Australian democracy”.

Read more: Ministerial offices are the ‘missing link’ of public sector reform

The Thodey Review found that over the past two decades, ministerial staff numbers have risen by 32%, from 339 in July 2000 to 449 in June 2019.

Over the same period, the number of APS staff has grown by 34%, the number of SES officers has risen by 65%, and the number of APS staff employed as policy advisers to ministers has doubled.

The review recommended the following:

  • The Secretaries Board and agencies should improve APS support for ministers by providing common platforms for ministers and offices to collaborate with public servants, establishing portfolio and service-wide mechanisms for ministers to provide feedback to the APS, and training APS employees on how to support ministers and their offices effectively,
  • The APSC should update guidance on roles and responsibilities defining interactions between ministers, their advisers and public servants,
  • Agency heads should support SES officers to work in ministerial offices and then return to the APS,
  • The Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 should be amended to establish a legislated code of conduct for advisers,
  • Government should set guidance for ministerial offices to have at least half of ministerial policy advisers with public service experience.

The first instalment of the APSC’s guidance is expected to be released in early 2021.

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