Catch-up: what do all of these ministerial staff actually do?

By The Mandarin

May 1, 2015

To many observers, government agencies are becoming progressively leaner, while ministerial offices are ballooning. From the outside, those ministerial staffer roles can seem oblique and numerous, thought Aaron Hill from Deloitte Access Economics. So he’s set about answering the often-thought question: what do all these ministerial staff actually do? The West Wing had the archetypes down pat, Hill argues, with CJ and Toby as media adviser and advocate for more than a simple “no comment”, and Josh as policy adviser and “advocate for the ordinary person on the street in the policy process”:

” … While the role of a media adviser might be the one best understood by the public, the role of policy advisers is much more poorly understood. The best policy advisers treat information like squirrels collecting nuts, going as wide as possible but then synthesising that information to provide concise, fair advice.

“This can bring the advice from a policy adviser in conflict with the advice from the public service — and sometimes, rightly so. However, in significant distinction from a common trope about advisers, I have only very rarely seen the advice from the public service modified by an adviser in the form that it goes to the minister and this was always when it was wrong on the facts. It would be an extremely insecure policy adviser who did not provide the public service’s advice to a minister. Typically, it is because a minister does not agree with the public service on the basis of new evidence which a policy adviser has uncovered in his or her own work which undermines their argument or the public service has misunderstood the government’s policy position.

“This issue ultimately relates to the role of ministerial advisers in the democratic process. The reality is that ministerial advisers do not enjoy the independence of public servants. They are acting as the direct agent of their minister, albeit of course, imperfectly. While a ministerial adviser should never attempt to exert the power of their minister (and again, only a very insecure adviser would do so — if an adviser was so sure that the minister wanted what they were asserting against strong disagreement from the public service, the conversation would be directly with the minister), it is deeply naïve to believe that advisers are somehow on a lark and “if only the minister knew the pure truth”. It is very likely that the minister knows whatever you believe to be the pure truth, it’s just that they disagree with you.

“Having said all of this, in my experience, this “Yes Minister” archetype of the relationship between policy advisers and the public service bears little relationship to reality. The vast majority of the time, policy advisers are going into bat for the policy outcome which the public service has developed because it is robust, well prepared and correct. As a policy adviser, I always thought that the public service made me seem vastly smarter than I actually am and a good policy adviser should be focusing on how they can best use the advice from the public service, not trying to constantly reinvent the wheel … “

Or perhaps The Thick of It had a more accurate depiction of what minister’s offices now face, managing the media and perceptions. Institute for Public Affairs’ Louise Staley thinks The Hollowmen got it strikingly wrong in dumbing down the players, especially the public service, but there is something to be said of policy debate losing primacy:

“[The Thick of It] reflects British politics in the late Blair era where Ministers are seen to have become subservient to a centralised cadre of media and policy enforcers from the Prime Minister’s office-Alistair Campbell and his staff. Policy is no longer the battleground seen in Yes, Minister. Now it is only process and media perceptions … “

Former ministerial liaison officer Rebecca Douglas wrote for The Mandarin, “in real life the public service exerts far less influence over ministers than Sir Humphrey. There is, however, a no-less-vexed relationship with the press compared with the two shows.”

” … In one department I was sent on media training, where we were taught how to stay “on message” during a radio interview and keep parroting three key points without actually answering the question. Essentially, we were taught to be politicians.

Another department I worked in was where plain English went to die. We seemed so focused on political correctness and calling disadvantaged groups the currently accepted acronym, we barely had any time to, well, actually help them. On one occasion I was excited to be creating a newsletter for a disadvantaged community. That is, until my manager got a hold of it and edited it to gov-speak anything useful out of existence. Such was the fear of offering any firm undertaking in any form of communication lest the media use it against us.

When the department actually was lampooned on talkback radio or a ministerial request came down from a dissatisfied customer, the response was often crafted in a deliberately vague, non-committal fashion. Then we would scramble to accommodate the customer’s every whim, reasonable or not. Sadly, it was a case of the squeakiest wheels getting the grease, launching themselves ahead of members of the public who waited patiently for service.

Wouldn’t it be nice to respond with less fear and more honesty? To directly help people rather than nitpicking over language? To defend the public servants doing the best job they can? I can dream … “

Who got it right? Tell us in the comments below.

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