Bureaucrat in the ministerial office: career risk or boon?

By David Donaldson

February 2, 2016

Doing a stint in a ministerial office offers valuable experience for a public servant. Despite this, many worry they’ll be seen as partisan when they return to the bureaucracy.

The shift back into the bureaucracy can generally be managed for, though there’s always the possibility it could impact your future career, says Institute of Public Administration national president Penny Armytage.

Although it’s not something she’s ever been interested in doing personally, the former secretary of the Victorian Department of Justice has seen plenty of others make the change.  She tells The Mandarin that in some cases return to the same portfolio “may not be possible”, so changing department or indeed jurisdiction is sometimes necessary.

“It’s valuable for senior people to be able to understand how ministerial offices work, and it’s valuable to the minister too.”

This is more likely the more senior you are, given the unavoidable proximity senior bureaucrats have to their minister. In some cases it may not be an issue — it all depends on the trust of the people involved.

“It’s about the respect for that relationship,” she explains. “It does require a high level of respect and confidence and is therefore something that should be discussed with the minister.

“Very often the senior officers will have their own judgment about whether the relationship is sustainable, so often it’s the public servant who makes the call.”

If you’re more junior, there tend to be fewer problems, though it’s something that would typically be discussed with the secretary. “I feel confident those things can be effectively managed,” says Armytage.

“Assuming that the public servant has been respectful in that role, typically there is a professional respect for that person irrespective of political side.”

Suspicion has always existed

Although the public sector is widely seen to have become more politicised in recent decades, public servants polled by The Mandarin thought there was probably no more distrust now about returning after a ministerial sojourn than in the past — some level of suspicion has always existed.

In times when there’s less trust between the government of the day and the public service, however, such suspicions can exacerbate the problem.

The thing that has changed is that while moving around has a long history at the Commonwealth level, it’s only more recently become widespread in the states and territories.

In taking a role in a ministerial office, one is offered two options: a secondment or resignation from the public service. Periodically there are also short-term opportunities in setting up the functioning of a new minister’s office after an election. Unsurprisingly, resigning is more likely to be seen as compromising one’s non-partisanship.

By contrast, for those making the reverse change — starting out as an adviser and then transitioning into the bureaucracy — the process can be more straightforward. Although many are taken on by the minister for their skills rather than political pedigree, everyone will be aware of their genesis as political staffers. The transition is more overt.

Pradeep Philip, the now CEO of startup promotion agency LaunchVic, is one such example. Having made his name as an adviser to Simon Crean and Peter Beattie, then as policy director and senior economic adviser to Kevin Rudd in opposition and later in PMO, Philip moved into senior Department of Premier and Cabinet jobs in Queensland and then Victoria.

Despite calls to “deal with” public servants who had a history of working for Labor, Premier Ted Baillieu kept him on, eventually promoting him to lead the Department of Health.

A path well worn

Apart from the excitement and responsibility of being at the coalface of executive government, experience in a ministerial office gives public servants an insight into the daily pressures placed on their political overlords and the practicalities of carrying out reform.

This is no doubt why the risks involved in brushing up against political hacks have failed to stop a many career public servant making the jump. Indeed, this broad experience may have helped some of Australia’s top public servants get where they are today.

Recently we’ve seen the promise of a competently run Prime Minister’s Office presented by the drafting of former secretary of the Department of Communications Drew Clarke into the role of Malcolm Turnbull’s chief of staff. Ambassador to China Frances Adamson is now the PM’s foreign affairs adviser — some speculate ahead of a possible move to take up the reins at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when Peter Varghese steps down in July.

Long-time director-general of the WA Department of the Attorney-General Cheryl Gwilliam recently moved to become federal Social Services Minister Christian Porter’s chief of staff.

And despite the sensitivities, there are plenty of examples of those who’ve spent time working in ministerial offices going on to become top mandarins under governments of another persuasion.

The new head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, was an adviser to Labor Treasurer John Dawkins. Ken Henry — the man who would be appointed 15th secretary of the Treasury by John Howard — was once a senior adviser to Treasurer Paul Keating, while deputy secretary of NSW Premier and Cabinet Mary Ann O’Loughlin also worked with Keating as PM.

Mike Pezzullo, appointed by the hyperpartisan Tony Abbott as inaugural head of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and seen as instrumental in implementing Abbott’s vision of a more hard-line immigration portfolio, worked for Foreign Minister Gareth Evans before taking up the role of chief of staff to Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.

Similarly, an earlier stint as chief of staff to NSW Labor Treasurer Michael Egan — not to mention being married to the now-federal Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek — did not prevent the NSW Coalition government appointing Michael Coutts-Trotter to lead the Department of Family and Community Services in 2013.

Given the rewards and risks on offer, “it really has to be a conscious decision to be made by the public servant,” says Armytage.

“It’s valuable for senior people to be able to understand how ministerial offices work, and it’s valuable to the minister too.

“The biggest challenge really is the return to public service and how that’s managed.”

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