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

Who had the most accurate depiction of how a political office is run? Yes, MinisterThe West WingThe Thick of ItThe Hollowmen … sure most of it is satire, but at times can feel all too real.

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.

FREE membership to The Mandarin

Receive unlimited access, get all the latest public sector news and features, plus The Juice, our daily news update sent direct to your inbox.

The Mandarin is where Australia's public sector leaders discuss their work and the issues faced within modern bureaucracy. Join today to discover the latest in public administration thinking and news from our dedicated reporters, current and former agency heads and senior executives.