Fixing the ‘demand side’ – helping ministers perform

By Sally Washington

September 9, 2021

Here's how the public service can help ministers set a strategic policy program that articulates their manifesto promises.
Here’s how the public service can help ministers set a strategic policy program that articulates their manifesto promises. (Den of Geek)

Relationships between ministers and their public service policy advisors needs to be negotiated up-front as part of a ‘policy pre-nup’ (see diagram). A previous article explored how to help ministers be ‘intelligent customers’ of policy advice. This article moves upstream and deals with setting a strategic policy program, identifying policy priorities, and agreeing an operating model to support ministers to do their job well.

Manifestos – the bare bones of a policy program

Governments are elected based on a party manifesto – their policy promises. In theory the public service immediately pivots from any previous government program to enthusiastically embrace the program of its new political masters. In practice, party manifestos usually only cover the bare bones of government business. Where a coalition partner is involved, those bones are picked over and subject to negotiation. Even with an absolute majority, no government starts with a clean slate. There are likely more legacy items and ongoing business-as-usual than new policies and programs in an incoming government’s overall workload. So, how can the public service help ministers set a strategic policy program that articulates their manifesto promises, aligns existing work programs with that intent, and leaves space for emerging or future issues?

The first dance – it takes two to tango

Like any new relationship, especially when there’s been a previous ‘partner’, you need to establish trust. The first opportunity to do this is through early discussion with a new minister.

Wayne Eagleson, chief of staff to former New Zealand PM John Key, advised the South Australian public service in 2018 on how to help new ministers ‘feel in charge’. He advised chief executives to “work with ministers to ensure clarity and alignment moving forward” and to “Put yourself in their shoes — understand the politics even though it is their job to manage the politics.”

There are conventions around this first dance process. A ‘brief to the incoming minister’ can show that the public service understands what the new government wants to achieve. Many departments prepare more than one brief – a blue and a red – to account for different party manifestos. But the bulk of the briefing will be purple and common to whichever party wins. It should also be free and frank. It should tell ministers what they need to hear not what departments think they want to hear. Cabinet offices set the ground rules. In NZ, cabinet office guidance states: “each departmental chief executive must ensure that, as soon as possible, the Minister receives a briefing covering organisational issues, major policy issues, and issues needing immediate attention.” In the 2020 NZ election some 150 documents were presented to incoming ministers (all publicly released).

What about the other dance partner? What can ministers do to establish a good relationship with their departments? They need to articulate what they want to achieve, but they should be open to advice on the best way to get there. Prime minister Morrison made his views clear on this front, stressing, “It is ministers who provide policy leadership and direction” while the public service should “get on and deliver the Government’s agenda”. But that agenda is not always clear or detailed enough to ‘get on and deliver’.  As a former UK minister said, “from my point of view, while I was very clear what our manifesto was, I was at that stage not at all clear of what our final policy prescriptions would look like.” Ministers would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore ideas and advice from policy experts, especially their own officials.

Define the program – get with the program

Some ministers are especially open to debate on policy direction. Respected former NZ PM and minister of finance Sir Bill English held regular ‘chew’ sessions with officials – an opportunity to discuss broad policy challenges before formally commissioning any advice. Other ministers adopted this approach with things like exploratory white-board sessions with officials. In the 1990s, ‘Premier House’ sessions involved collective discussions between ministers and senior officials on work already on the books, policy ready to go, and work that could be jump started, which appeared to support an ‘in it together’ relationship between the government and the public service.

Departments also have stewardship responsibilities, to include longer-term considerations in developing an overall work program. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, departments must now produce regular Long-term Insights Briefings (which might in turn inform future political parties’ agenda).

Adjusting the program – good commissioning is key

Managing a policy program is not a set-and-forget task. Things change, as COVID-19 has taught us. Moreover, energetic ministers and officials constantly seek opportunities to do things better or do better things. They need to agree processes for re-prioritisation or de-prioritisation.

That means setting ground rules for introducing new initiatives and adjusting the previously agreed policy program, including ensuring policy demands are recorded, understood, and not ‘lost in translation’. Good commissioning is crucial, with clarity on what is being asked for, why, by when, and who should be involved (including stakeholders and other ministers). Alarmingly, but understandably, ministers sometimes come into the role not knowing how to actually commission advice from officials. And that’s not the only area where they might be flying blind.

Do ministers need training?

A recent UK report set out ways to ‘empower’ ministers to succeed, including better training. In the UK, the Institute for Government (IFG) provides bespoke training for ministers and shadow ministers, but in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia there is less support available. The McKinnon Institute’s Advanced Political Leadership course, designed for Australian members of parliament with ministerial potential, is a notable exception. Central agencies and cabinet secretaries provide induction on constitutional conventions and what to expect from the public service, and seasoned ministers sometimes act as mentors to junior colleagues. But anecdotally, formal training is often shunned by politicians not wanting to appear ignorant (especially in front of their colleagues).

The IFG’s Ministers Reflect series includes interviews with ex-ministers on what they wished they’d known before taking on the role. Being thrown in at the deep end is a common theme. The IFG concludes that,” Given they are responsible for serious matters which affect everyday life, helping ministers properly prepare for their jobs would clearly be to the benefit of us all.” The same could be said for cohorts in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia.

Brokers and facilitators – ministerial offices and advisors

Where ministers do get support is through their private office. Who is in the private office, how they relate to departmental officials, and articulating an ‘operating model’ for how things are run, is crucial.

Concerns have been raised about the growth of political staff in ministers’ offices. Although less a factor in Aotearoa-New Zealand than in Australia, the NZ public service commissioner launched a pre-emptive strike with a specific code of conduct for ministerial staffers.

Whoever is in the minister’s office, they need to work together to support the minister and maintain good relationships with departments. As the ‘eyes and ears of the minister’ they need to ensure the minister knows what’s going on in the department and that the department is given early warning about the ministers thinking or future demands for advice. This includes substantive insights from meetings with stakeholders and other ministers, to more administrative issues like the minister’s preferences for how advice is presented (written, oral, visual), and who is in the room for discussions.

Some ministers prefer to only have senior officials in the room for discussion, others want to hear from the person who actually prepared the advice. Former UK cabinet secretary, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, was lauded for including policy worker bees in briefings to the British prime minister or cabinet. The NZ Treasury, supported by authorising ministers over the years, also has a history of people further down the food chain being involved in discussions with the minister – the upshot is that the minister gets the real oil and young officials a great development experience.  

It’s all about trust

Confident ministers generally have an appetite for free and frank advice. Chris Hipkins, Aotearoa New-Zealand minister for lots of things (education, COVID-19, the public service) called for more ‘hard-hitting advice’ saying, “Ministers aren’t mushrooms, they shouldn’t be kept in the dark…Even if at the end of the day I reject the advice I’m given, I think I’d make a better decision for being properly informed than if I was making that decision in ignorance”. Senior officials and ministerial office staff can create a safe place for challenging but respectful discussion.

Like any relationship, if both sides have a common understanding about overall priorities, and some ground rules about how they interact, then it is easier to have ‘courageous conversations’ about how decisions get made and implemented. In the case of ministers and their officials, that means better decisions for the public they serve.


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