Andrew Kibblewhite: mastering the art of free and frank advice

SPEECH: There a few ‘F words’ to consider when providing “free and frank” advice, says Andrew Kibblewhite, the head of New Zealand DPMC. Advise without fear or favour — but don’t be foolish. Facts, focused, future and … fallible?

As well as talking about free and frank and some other F-words that characterise great advice, I want to discuss what makes the relationship between ministers and officials work and the role that advice plays in the relationship. I’ll also talk about public service chief executives’ new responsibility for stewardship.

Before we get on to talking about ministers and officials, I want to offer a few general thoughts about why free and frank advice from officials is so important. A politician in the UK recently suggested people are tired of listening to experts. Some commentators looking at events in recent months in the UK and the US have even suggested that we are entering a period of ‘post-fact’ politics.

As someone whose professional identity is grounded in the importance of facts, evidence and expertise, I find these trends worrying. I think deep, expert, apolitical advice matters more than ever for elected decision-makers in an increasingly messy, complex world.

I’m not suggesting that officials are the only experts who advise ministers, or that we are the only voices they should listen to – far from it. But our advice is important for a few reasons. First, we are trained in how to offer analytically robust, practical, apolitical advice to ministers on achieving their goals. Our responsibility is to seek the best outcomes, not the political advantage of a party, faction or particular sector of society.

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