Who are the staffers shaping our political landscape?

By Victoria Draudins

Monday July 16, 2018

From ABC’s ‘The Hollowmen’ series.

The ministerial office is one of the last largely inscrutable parts of our democracy. Where do these staffers come from, and what makes them qualified? A researcher is only now building a picture.

Over a catch-up with a former senior colleague of mine, we mused about the types of people employed by ministers’ offices. One thing this discussion raised was how little we know about who these people are. Anyone who’s looked into this area will know how difficult it is to find holistic information in this area — but more on that later.

The four staffer archetypes

Despite a lack of specificity, we could still form an idea of the categories people fell into. After reconciling my own experiences with a few other people – including those who have worked in ministers’ offices – it seems that staffers are most likely to fall into one of four categories:

  • The political staffer
  • Public sector ambassadors
  • The subject-matter expert
  • The functional expert

Political staffers generally involve party members with previous political experience. It’s not unusual for junior members to have been recruited straight from university.

Public sector ambassadors may take a leave of absence or resign from their department (or agency) to work in a minister’s office. While they may have other skills or political affiliation, they are generally hired for their knowledge of government policy and process. A main defining point is their commitment and longterm career aspirations to work in in the public service. They go into this role with their department’s blessing as they are seen as forging invaluable links with the office.

Subject matter experts have strong expertise in one of a number of disciplines (e.g. economics, international relations) and may come from the private sector, peak bodies or industry groups. They may also come from departments, but are more agnostic about being a public servant. While I thought they might also have been recruited from thinktanks, one staffer informed me that it generally flows from the other way, recruited to a thinktank from a minister’s office.

Lastly, functional experts use a specific skillset to carry out tasks, e.g. data analytics, graphic design, rather than acquiring knowledge in an overall discipline as found in subject matter experts. They are becoming an increasingly influential phenomenon, with Malcolm Turnbull reportedly having his own cameraperson.

While greatly varying between each office, few familiar with the inner workings of parliament would be surprised that political staffers make up the largest category, followed by public servants. As staffers’ profiles are not widely known, it’s difficult to tell with accuracy how many public servants are actually working in ministers’ offices at any one time. Dr Maria Maley is in the middle of an ARC project about this very question. After three years of painstaking research, the ANU academic is only now starting to garner answers, estimating that around 20% of offices’ staff are made up of public servants.

Increase in functional specialisation

Another interesting trend comes anecdotally from one staffer, who told me that “in my 10 years working as a ministerial staffer the main trend I’ve seen is an increase in functional specialisation with specific skillsets being recruited.” I can think of two reasons why this type of specialisation may occur, although there are probably more factors at play – ministers operating in increasingly complex environments demanding more sophisticated answers in return, which in turn drives a need for specialist knowledge. Secondly, increased staffing levels may free up people to focus on specific areas, rather than wearing many hats.

Ministers can hire people in a variety of ways. Often they’ve worked with them before or have come recommended from trusted ministerial or parliamentary sources, which is necessary given the amount of discretion these jobs require. More formal ways may include public advertisements, internal advertisements or party staffing committee review.

In probably the highest-profile example of appointing someone they’ve worked with in the past, Malcolm Turnbull brought then Communications Secretary Drew Clark across to parliament as his new chief of staff upon becoming prime minister. Clark has a lengthy public service legacy, holding a number of positions in government and winning a Public Service Medal in 2009. He is currently a board member of both the CSIRO and AEMO. The prime minister continued this trend for non-political chief. He next appointed his international adviser, Greg Moriarty, to the post following Clark’s retirement, who started his career at Defence before working in DFAT and as an ambassador. Former ambassador Peter Woolcott is the current chief of staff.

Hidden from public scrutiny

One question this research brings up is whether the people working in a minister’s office should be so hidden from public scrutiny given their integral public purpose. Public records note the cost and number of ministerial office staff, but government guidelines don’t require publication of appointments, as is mandated of the public service. With the Prime Minister’s 58 staff averaging $233,000 in 2017 and the Opposition Leader’s 39 staff averaging $193,000 according to news sources, is there a need for more scrutiny?

“With the PM’s 58 staff averaging $233,000 in 2017 and the Opposition Leader’s 39 staff averaging $193,000 according to news sources, is there a need for more scrutiny?”

One golden opportunity to review these arrangements would have been through the newly announced APS survey. However, the new review isn’t everything former mandarins were calling for, with a limited scope being levelled against it as a key criticism. The review applies to staff under the ordinance of the Public Service Act 1999. Federal bodies such as the CSIRO, ASIO and ASIC are being left out of the review’s purview as well as staffers, given they operate under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984.

However, some comfort against the veil surrounding ministers’ offices is provided by the safeguard of government departments themselves, dedicated to providing impartial, robust policy advice, as well as from the pride and passion staffers typically put into their role.

As one staffer has stated, “almost universally, people treat being an adviser as a vocation. The stereotype of young apparatchiks is generally a myth.”

Continue reading: Why become a ministerial staffer?

Bureaucrat in the MO: in some cases return to portfolio ‘not possible’
Still many concerns about lax rules for ministerial staffer appointments
Mind the rise — and ever rise — of ministerial advisers
‘Advisers are here to stay, so you’ve got to make it work’

Top image: Staffers from the Prime Minister’s Central Policy Unit (aka ‘The Hollowmen’). Courtesy of ABC publicity.

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