How to deal with ministerial advisers

By Stephen Easton

October 3, 2017

It’s said to be a common problem in the public service, especially at higher levels: a ministerial adviser makes a request that sounds like a directive or mediates the agency’s advice in a way that seems to overstep their role in the system.

Most senior public servants are quite aware of their options in such a situation — ask the minister’s office to put it in writing, for example, or ask to speak directly with the boss — as well as how easily they can lose their minister’s confidence and be out of a job if this central relationship sours.

Now the Australian Public Service Commission has given some handy advice on how to handle such a situation in response to a public servant who reached out to its integrity advice service:

“I’ve been liaising with the Minister’s office on a policy proposal. I’ve just been instructed by one of his advisers to focus the proposal on just one option and drop the others that we had been considering. What should I do?”

The commission confirms that ministers and their advisers can’t just order public servants around. Only their actual managers in the agency can tell them “what to do and how to do it” but this may well involve dealing with the ministerial team.

“In a case like this, you should report the situation to your manager to discuss how best to handle the situation,” the APSC advises.

“As public servants we have to understand the needs of the Government and what it is looking for in advice, but we are also obliged to make sure that the advice we provide to Ministers is objective, non-partisan, and based on the best evidence available. Our advice must also be relevant and comprehensive.

“Sometimes this will mean that we have to tell a Minister, or their office, things that are adverse. That is part of the responsibility of public service professionalism.

“Keeping good records of advice is important. You don’t have to put everything in writing, but any matters of importance discussed, or policy advice given, should be recorded carefully. This will help maintain clarity on the issue and ensure consistency in discussion between the parties involved.

“Finally, in a situation of this nature, remember that it’s also important to maintain the relationship between your agency and the Minister’s office. It’s usually best to resolve any differences as informally as possible. Remember that it is Ministers who are finally responsible for deciding what policy choices to make, and are accountable to Parliament and the community for those choices.”

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