How established bureaucracies can make new ministers feel in charge

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Transition from opposition to government can be hard on ministers who aren’t used to seeing the public service as on their side. Now they need those agencies if they want to stay a minister.

The South Australian Marshall government has brought in an expert to help them adjust to their new responsibilities after 16 years in opposition — Wayne Eagleson (pictured above), former chief of staff to two New Zealand prime ministers.

Naturally this sparked the curiosity of the other side of politics, which used Freedom of Information to obtain the costs and notes associated with Eagleson’s advice. The resulting trove hasn’t wounded the government, but it does contain some interesting advice he gave to public service leaders on making their new ministers (and their staffers) feel at home.

Public servants were given homework before the briefings in May this year to brush up on New Zealand’s public service targets approach and their approach to improving policymaking.

Eagleson cautioned cabinet officials not to rush ministers on their narrative and commitments, rather wait a few months so they understand what it is to be in government and working within a cabinet process with collective responsibility.

They should begin by mocking up high-level proposals for areas they know ministers are keen on, looking at what other Australian jurisdictions are doing, and picking up on narratives, like transparency. Be clear about implementation risks, Eagleson urged, as well as how they can be mitigated.

New Zealand’s Better Public Service Targets and ministerial charter letters were particularly helpful, he noted, because they aligned ministerial and public service aims with public expectations, and were public service focussed. Each minister nominated their top three issues in their first term, he said, and these targets were improved in the second term. Targets needed to be aspirational, defining the outcome that success should bring, rather than the approach of how to get there.

Reform of the public sector should be conducted over the long haul, possibly over three terms of government, rather than a big bang, Eagleson advised.

To ministers, Eagleson cited the UK Institute for Government’s research on effective ministers. These individuals have a clear sense of purpose, they prioritise rather than doing everything at once, and make timely good decisions. They also encourage teamwork and challenge, win public support and earn the respect of parliament.

Below are Eagleson’s slide notes, shown to the SA’s senior public service leaders:

How ministers are feeling

  • Excited; optimistic — but with a sense of trepidation
  • In a hurry to make a mark — but with caution lest they screw up…
  • Wanting to get on with it — but not always clear about what levers to pull and when
  • Sometimes overwhelmed by the workload and expectations — with little time to reflect or plan
  • Used to treating the public service as part of the “opposition” — now they need them to succeed
  • Haven’t needed to understand the role of the public service — now they are responsible to Parliament for it
  • Used to doing things by themselves — now they must delegate and lead
  • In opposition they had to work hard to gain media attention — now everything they do (good and bad) is news
  • Possibly dismissive of the Labor opposition — but they know where the bodies are buried
  • Used to working with small, political staff — which now needs to “share” the minister with the department
  • Understand the need for discipline — and leadership from the Premier
  • Having finally become a minister — desperate to stay there!

Eagleson suggested seven key areas for incoming ministers to focus on:

  1. Conduct — lawful; high ethical standards; avoiding conflict of interest
  2. Cabinet collective responsibility at the core of government. Underpined by good Cabinet decision-making processes and a collegial culture
  3. What Ministers should bring to Cabinet — major policy issues; important spending proposals and financial commitments; matters crossing portfolios; controversial matters
  4. Working with the Premier’s Office — no surprises; accept direction and co-ordination; ensure culture of welcoming the Premier’s Office involvement
  5. Balancing the immediate and the important — successful ministers balance short, medium and long terms not just today’s problems. Four-year term enables careful implementation — it’s not a sprint
  6. Managing reform while still delivering services — people are more interested in services than structure/form; during major reform government agencies and officials become inward looking and worry about their jobs; goes to timing and sequence
  7. Getting the best out of the department — now on the same team; build a strong relationship; political advisors are a conduit not a block; understand the policymaking process and the respective roles; be clear on expectations

How chief executives can help ministers succeed

  • Implementation of the 100 Day program and election manifesto is key
  • Work with ministers to ensure clarity and alignment moving forward
  • Ensure departments have the capacity and capability to make the necessary changes
  • Free and frank advice to ensure minister make informed decisions
  • Put yourself in their shoes — understand the politics even though it is their job to manage the politics
  • Develop clear, simple reporting that aligns with your minister’s priorities
  • Quietly alert the Premier’s Department where a minister needs support

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