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Political turbulence: tips for the enduring public servant

The Commonwealth secretary who had six ministers in five years, says a minister’s second year is the turning point. Don’t blame ministerial staff for not knowing the department’s unique and separate role.

Ministerial offices are a perennial source of frustration and target of derision for many public servants, but departing Commonwealth secretary Simon Lewis says he has no time for those complaints: make it work, and focus on providing the most complete advice for the minister.

The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who gave his valedictory address in front of Institute for Public Administration Australia members in Canberra yesterday, had much more fertile topics (which The Mandarin will cover shortly) from his 42-year government career than the recent plague of political turbulence — but that churn has been, and remains, an inescapable story of the DVA portfolio.

Lewis would have more justification to complain than most — not that he would. Through his five-year appointment, the Veterans Affairs boss had six primary ministers: Warren Snowdon, Michael Ronaldson, Stuart Robert, Dan Tehan, Michael McCormack and most recently Darren Chester. Each involved a turnover of ministerial staff and a heavy load of issues for the incoming ministers to get to speed.

Warren Snowdon had a decent run, but an election and change of government ended his time as minister just a few months into Lewis’s appointment. Ronaldson’s two years ended with his sacrificial dumping for factional balance when his friend Malcolm Turnbull became leader. Robert’s five months ended when he found himself in spot of trouble and had to resign. Tehan’s 22 months ended in the reshuffle arising from the Section 44 crisis that turfed several members of parliament with dual citizenship. McCormack lasted barely 10 weeks before Barnaby Joyce’s private life necessitated a new Nationals leader. Chester has now been in the role for 10 weeks.

In addition, the recent practice has been for government and shadow VA ministers to split their attention across several portfolios — the Coalition government paired it with Special Minister of State, then Human Services, while Labor currently pairs it with Early Childhood Education.

It’d be nice to have more stability, Lewis admitted, but of course that’s up to the prime minister of the day.

“Departments don’t get much done without an effective minister,” he said. “Suffice to say by the time we have a minister in their second year, it makes a big difference to their capacity to sell the agenda of the department with our stakeholders and work with the department on various challenges we’re facing.

“Fewer ministers from my perspective would have been a good thing.”

Lewis offered the crowd of public servants some tips for making it work:

1. Get a sense of the new minister’s priorities ASAP. Lewis said that one of his biggest challenges in his five years at DVA was getting ministers underway as quickly as possible. In the Turnbull government years, Lewis and his deputy Liz Cosson — recently announced as his successor — would attempt to meet with the incoming minister as soon as possible to get a better sense of their priorities.

2. Don’t overload a new minister. There are always a raft of issues that have to be dealt with, but there is only so much information a person can absorb at once.

3. Be open about the negatives with ministers. An informed minister will have your back and “if that relationship is managed you’ll be a long way on your way to success” Lewis says.

“I don’t like pulling briefs, and I’ve done so rarely … but when it has been needed, the most common reason I can think of, has been what I perceive to be the insufficient articulation of the downside of any recommended courses of action.

“Now, I can understand why public servants can become keen advocates for proposed courses of action, but this does not take away their obligations to advise the minister comprehensively and objectively regarding the options, the pros and cons, and a strategies for mitigating the risks. Only then can we say the minister has received balanced advice supporting our recommendations and have him or her [be prepared] if the articulated risks or criticisms emerge.

“Of course, all important advice must be in writing.”

4. Know your separate role from ministerial staff. Lewis says he’s constantly reminding his department about the separate role they play from that of the minister’s office.

“Particularly where I hear instructions from the minister’s office to pull a brief … minister’s office don’t decide whether briefs get pulled or not. It’s up to the minister to decide what he does with the brief from the department. If a brief is not up to scratch for some reason, then I’ll pull a brief myself if needs to be pulled, but that doesn’t change the nature of our advice.

“If a minister’s office says it’s missing something … then I say put in a supplementary, because a supplementary achieves the purpose, but you’re not altering the fact you’ve submitted written advice.

“It’s the nature of the operating environment in Canberra, we’ve got to be able to work with ministers and minister’s offices. I think it’s eminently workable myself. Yes, the [minister’s] offices are bigger, but they’re still not big. If a minister wants to get anything done, they’re not going to get it done through the minister’s office; they’re going to get it done through their department. You can make the relationship work and in fact you have to in order to get the machinery of government to work well.

5. Learn to work through others. Perfection and attention to detail is less critical than building a team, Lewis says. The single biggest thing he’s learned in his career, including the years before the turbulence of the DVA, was the importance of building a team that can be let loose without micromanagement.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.