Be responsive and don’t be rude: Nicola Roxon’s advice to public servants


Not being upfront, treating the minister as an idiot: “these are the sorts of things that sap confidence quickly,” Nicola Roxon tells Public Sector Week.

The relationship between minister and public servant isn’t always smooth, but is necessary to the whole functioning of government.

Neglecting to provide advice that reflects the government’s platform is one of the biggest ministerial pet peeves, noted former minister Nicola Roxon at the opening of IPAA Victoria’s Public Sector Week this morning.

So too are public servants who are condescending or even openly rude.

These problems can erode the relationship between minister and bureaucracy that is vital in the Westminster system.

“You’re the advisers — and often the content experts — but not the decision makers. You will often have many years’ experience in the field, quite often many more than the minister,” she said, noting that she had no prior experience in the field of health when she became health minister in the Rudd government.

“Sometimes that wealth of expertise, which does come from professional experience that the minister often does not have, can lead to the public sector being a bit patronising,” she told the opening event, hosted by the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Even if it’s frustrating dealing with a minister who is a bit “dopey”, approaching the problem in this way does not help improve policy — the ultimate reason everyone is in the room.

A lack of responsiveness to the government of the day’s policy positions can be a real source of friction.

“I was surprised when I came to office — remember in 2007 we were elected after a long-serving conservative government — just how long it took for the briefs to reflect the platform that we’d been elected to deliver,” she said.

While the headline items were easily picked up and much of the portfolio was uncontroversial and could continue as before, too much seemed to be unchanged from the previous government.

“Across the entire material coming up from the department, there was lacking any sense that public servants writing those briefs had actually looked afresh at what they were writing to ask if it was consistent with public statements, promises or commitments that had been made by the new government.”

The problem was bad enough that she asked for a new section to be included on the briefing front page, asking whether the document was consistent with, or affected by, the new government’s policies.

“The reason I’m saying this is because as the minister, these are the sorts of things that sap confidence quickly,” Roxon stated.

This doesn’t just happen when government changes, but can be an issue when a reshuffle brings in a new minister or when there’s a public controversy in the policy area.

Not being upfront with the minister is another point of annoyance. Roxon recounted an anecdote from when she became attorney general in a reshuffle and was sent a request to approve two weeks of travel for four public servants to attend an international intellectual property conference ‘to pursue government policy’ — a term she puts in inverted commas “because my interest was piqued because I wasn’t aware that we had any government policy in intellectual property,” she said.

“So I sent it back saying ‘what policy?’ and it duly came back with an answer: ‘long-standing government policy’ and a little polite note saying ‘could you please sign this urgently as the date for the overseas travel is coming up quickly’.

“I sent it back again: ‘which actual policy and arguing what?’ and it turns out the policy was not our government’s, was not the Howard government’s before that, not the Keating government before that, but from nearly 20 years earlier, in the early days of the Hawke government.”

The whole thing was “really badly handled” — while the policy in question was uncontroversial and she ultimately approved travel for one public servant, and for a “much” shorter period, “I felt that they hadn’t been upfront with me and were almost hoping that the minister would be too busy and would just sign off with a bundle of other things,” she said.

“Even though it was an insignificant matter, it wasn’t good grounds for building that trusting relationship.”

She offered a few more points of advice to public servants.

  • Do you homework. “Being a content expert is no help if you can’t keep across the initiatives that your minister is talking about or the commitments they’ve made. Whether you like those initiatives or not, the minister expects you to know about them, acknowledge them, address them — if they’re relevant — in your advice.”
  • Be strategically smart and adapt advice — or at least the framing of it — based on who you are talking to.
  • Don’t be rude to a minister who is not from your department — a reshuffle might mean they end up as your boss. This happened when Roxon moved from health to attorney general’s. She noted how strange it was that suddenly the lawyers were agreeing with the position they’d previously told her was a bad idea. After briefly acknowledging that she was exactly the same person she had been three months previously when they had been “extremely rude” to her, they went on to have an excellent working relationship.
  • Don’t just ignore and try to get around a policy you don’t like. You might be able to slow the process down, but ultimately it won’t work.
  • Ascertain at the beginning if your minister is a talker or a reader when it comes to processing advice.
  • Don’t hide important factors in your advice on page 44. Roxon is a fan of the one-pager for this reason, she says.
  • If you need to tell the minister their idea is unworkable, proposing an alternative can be a good way to make them listen. Kevin Rudd’s most famous saying in cabinet was “don’t always be the problem people, where are the solution people?” Just saying no isn’t usually the best way to get a good outcome.
  • Try to engage sufficiently at the beginning of the policy making process, rather than at the end. Don’t be an activist, but don’t be passive either. “Finding that middle path is what excellent public servants are able to do,” she said. “The point is that your expertise and advice can more easily be followed and absorbed by ministers if it’s set in a context that acknowledges the positions already taken by the government.”