Advice you can stand by: dealing with the difficult minister's office

By David Donaldson

September 9, 2016

Although public servants should politely resist the efforts of ministers’ offices to dictate the advice to be presented to the minister, it’s worth figuring out what’s driving a request for particular policy options, says New Zealand Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite.

Kibblewhite offered his advice to public servants dealing with a minister or their staff seeking to influence advice in a recent speech to the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand, in which he also argued the publication of ministerial advice “does democracy a disservice”.

An important skill possessed by successful advisers is the ability to be “free and frank”, as they say in New Zealand — telling the minister not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It also means knowing how to pick the right moment, whether that’s to tell the minister unwelcome news or to pitch an idea they wouldn’t have previously considered.

“We shouldn’t be reluctant to work with the minister’s political staff on a policy issue.”

“Frank means we don’t pull our punches with ministers,” Kibblewhite explains. “We are honest about where we think the pitfalls and risks are. But I also noted that frank doesn’t mean foolish — as in any relationship there are smarter ways of saying things — giving the hard truths in the most constructive and palatable way possible.”

One part of offering free and frank advice is resisting attempts to “pre-bake” advice — allowing the political office to dictate what the department tells the minister.

Kibblewhite set out his advice on tackling this, based on three scenarios public servants may face:

“The first thing I would say in these situations is to make the effort to understand what is motivating the minister or his or her office. Is there an issue in the quality of the advice? Are we missing the mark too often? Officials and Ministers should be having regular conversations about how to make the relationship work most effectively.”

Scenario 1: ‘let’s have the advice in draft’

“A minister’s office asks for the department’s advice in draft. You suspect that this will result in an instruction to remove the parts of the advice that don’t back the minister’s preferred course of action. What do you do?

“Right up front I would be respectfully clear to the minister’s office that it’s our role to provide our advice, not advice for others to edit. I would expect all public servants to stand firm on this principle and to be backed by their chief executive.

“Having said that I would try and understand what was really behind the request. In many cases the main problem may well be one of commissioning. If the minister is worried that we are likely to set off on the wrong track — and yes this does happen! — I would suggest instead that officials have a discussion with the minister or the office to make sure that we are answering the right questions.

“Some officials are reluctant to work with the minister’s political staff on a policy issue. We shouldn’t be. Often we will collectively serve the minister best by ensuring the political and policy lines of advice understand each other. The no go zone for me is when ministerial advisors act in ways that prevent officials’ independent advice getting through to the Minister. And I should note of course the situation is different for Cabinet papers. These are ministers’ own papers and it is perfectly appropriate for them to receive drafts and edit them or write them directly.”

Scenario 2: ‘the pre-baked solution’

“A minister or their office requests advice on a particular issue, but specifies exactly how it should be solved. You know it’s your job to analyse the evidence, to test whether there are better ways of achieving the outcome. What do you do?

“I would respectfully try to draw out what outcome the minister is trying to achieve and why he or she thinks the pre-baked solution is the best answer. I would be absolutely open to the idea that the minister might be right. But I would take seriously my responsibility to test their preferred solution against alternative options. I would expect the minister to consider that advice.”

Scenario 3: ‘advice not seen’

“A minister’s office returns the department’s advice annotated ‘not seen by the minister’. What do you do?

“I would be worried by this and would seek to raise the issue with both the minister and the office, pointing out it is not the role of the office to prevent advice reaching the minister. Such practice exposes all parties — the minister, his or her office and the department — to much greater risk. The reality is the advice still stands — and indeed the records kept by the department will show the report was submitted and returned.”

Behaviour as the exemplar for the next generation

Senior leaders “have to set and reiterate clear expectations about what it means to be a great policy advisor, and to act as exemplars”, Kibblewhite argues.

“In my experience, strong ministers welcome robust advice that points out the pitfalls as well as the opportunities in any course of action. Moreover, they go back to officials who offer it, even when the conversations have been difficult. To be sought out for your advice will be one of the most valuable and satisfying experiences you can have in your public service career.”

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