“Will they tell me the truth? Will they be honest and open with me, or will they just tell me what I want to hear?” That is the Honourable Philip Dalidakis describing what he looks for in a political staffer. It is trademark Phil: frank and pragmatic.
It’s one of many insights from the former Victorian Minister for Trade & Investment, Innovation & the Digital Economy, Small Business.
Phil is a well-regarded and accomplished leader with vast experience working across business, finance, government and the not-for-profit sector. Following his time in the Victorian government, he was the executive general manager of Corporate Services at Australia Post.
I worked with Phil when he was in Senator Stephen Conroy’s office, and it is a testament to Phil’s long-term relationship building that more than a decade later he was so generous it talking with me.
The key differences between public and private sector ways of working
“In the private sector often the profit motive is your primary objective, and you obviously need to get there ethically and legally,” says Phil. “Within the public sector the outcome is only 49% of the goal, 51% is the process, which is a really interesting learning.
“You can have the wrong process and the right outcome and lose your job in the public sector, but you can have the right process and the wrong outcome and be protected for life. Neither of those circumstances are as black and white within the private sector.”
Phil also stresses the importance to outsiders of understanding how government works, “how slow it is even when it’s moving quickly” and how much patience you need to have in the private sector when you are dealing with government.
Who these ‘political staffers’ are, and their typical backgrounds
It is “a liquorice all-sorts” says Phil.
“You will get people who are seconded from departments who have expert policy expertise, people that have come up through the ranks and will serve their minister because they have a very strong party-political background and you will have people that cross over the divide like myself that have a party political background but also bring professional expertise to the role.”
The first thing to look for in a political staffer as a minister
“You need to make sure you have people in your office that are, number one, loyal, and by “loyal” I mean I don’t mean they will do anything you ask, I mean they will give you advice when you need to get it, as difficult as that advice may be,” says Phil.
“So, the first thing I look for in a staffer is, will they tell me the truth? Will they be honest and open with me, or will they just tell me what I want to hear? I can get a dime a dozen people who will tell me what I want to hear.
“So, honesty, loyalty, and of course trust, which comes from working with people over a period of time.”
Advice for best reaching a minister and their staff
“It really does depend on the issue and the urgency of the issue (to the minister, not to your or your client) but… the first thing is always to try to communicate with the ministerial office,” says Phil, who acknowledges that reaching the right people can be challenging at times in the hubbub of politics.
Sometimes it is just making a cold call to find out if you can speak to the advisor that has responsibility for the policy. But if you know someone close to the staffer or minister who can vouch for you “that goes a long way in politics”.
“The last thing that a staffer wants to do is have a conversation that is going to find its way onto the front page of the newspaper. They want to have some trust that if they are going to be responsive to your needs that you are also going to be professional about the way that you honour that relationship.”
Managing ongoing engagement with ministers and their staffers
Phil has two main pieces of advice on this.
“If you can alert them to something they need to be aware of that will blow up and become an issue for them, then if you have spoken and brought it to their attention quite frankly they can have no qualms about what then subsequently happens if they didn’t deal with it,” he says.
“But the last thing you want is to have your client go out and make commentary about a Minister and something that they have done if the minister has not had the opportunity to talk to them about it.”
Of course, adds Phil, it’s a horses-for-courses approach: if it’s a tender process, it will be different story because of probity issues and will depend on the public importance of the policy and the dollar value to the client.
Political staffers’ precarious employment conditions and the high pressures on them
He is not sure either of these is going to change any time soon. “The level of expectation when you are working in a ministerial office is immense and when you are working for a federal minister the level of responsibility is huge,” he says.
He also believes that the scrutiny on staffers, already far greater than it was 10 years ago, will continue to increase, and anyone considering such a role needs to be aware of those responsibilities.
Phil’s top three tips for anyone considering a career move as a political staffer
The first is “manage your expectations”. “This is not always ‘The West Wing’, it can be a bit more like ‘Utopia’ at times. So, go in with your eyes wide open.”
Secondly, “you need to have a love of public policy” and thirdly “you have to be pragmatic”.
“The idea of public policy purity is fiction, you will have to have trade-offs because of the way that Parliaments and democracy are structured. That’s life… if you can’t handle that, don’t enter politics.”