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A conversation starter for new ministers

6 May 2021

News and media


person delivering speech to the audience


How do we ensure Ministers and their Departments engage in the most productive way from the start of their working relationships, and avoid misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations on both sides? ANZSOG Deputy CEO, Research and Advisory, Dr Subho Banerjee imagines a speech that an incoming minister might deliver to their department outlining a realistic approach to developing a relationship that delivers effective policy and good governance, consistent with a contemporary Australian Westminster context.

Thank you, Secretary, for the invitation to speak to the Department today. It is a great honour to have been asked by the Prime Minister to assume responsibility for this portfolio, and I’m looking forward to delivering on the government’s ambitious policy agenda in this area.

The great privilege of governing is to have the opportunity to actually get things done, not just talk about them. But to do that, I need your assistance – in practice, it is the Department which carries out most of the day to day running of the government machine, through implementing policy, administering legislation and programs, delivering services, making payments, responding to queries and talking to citizens.

So I want to take this opportunity to set out what is particularly important to me in establishing a productive working relationship with the Department.

The foundation for the working relationship must be respect.

I have enormous respect for the Australian Public Service. It has supported good governance in Australian public life for over a century, serving the government of the day, accountable through successive generations of Ministers to the Parliament. And as the latest in this line, I am looking forward to engaging with you constructively on the apolitical and constructive basis set out in the Australian Westminster conventions.

I will always seek your advice, and respect it, although I may not always follow it in my decisions. But I expect that you will respect my decisions nonetheless, and implement them with all the diligence and professionalism at your disposal, regardless of your initial view of their merits.

I will ensure that my Ministerial Office will always deal with the Department with respect, and are always conscious that their authority extends only as far as things that are done in my name. But I expect that you will respect their role as highly skilled professionals who have a different but equally important role in our system of government.

I also expect respect to be paid to the process of governing. Discussions should be kept confidential, professional courtesy should be observed at all times, and people should fulfil their duty with integrity.

In terms of your substantive advice, I will always be looking for rigour.

I want you to provide robust advice. Clear writing underpins clear thinking, and vice versa. I’ll expect your advice to be well-structured, supported by evidence and analysis, and to set out a range of options and their associated risks. It should then express a substantive view about the preferred option and provide a clear path forward through to implementation.

I expect you to be genuinely outward-facing – have we talked to the relevant experts, and those directly affected by the change? I’ll expect you to think creatively and boldly – what is really driving the problem, what is really holding us back, and does the proposed solution really get to heart of the issue? And I’ll expect a genuine commitment to practical problem-solving – don’t just caution about the many obstacles of a proposed approach, without also exercising your imagination and creativity towards alternative ways to achieve the desired result.

But rigorous advice needs to be delivered with a high standard of responsiveness.

Working with my Ministerial Office, we will seek to provide as much notice as possible, and be realistic as to what can be delivered in what timeframe. But when we ask for things, with those preconditions met, please keep in mind that speed is often critical, and that deadlines really matter. When I have asked for advice for Question Time, it needs to be on time – even five minutes late means that it is completely wasted.

And in turn, I will seek to be timely in my feedback and decision-making, when given appropriate notice. I recognise that this portfolio needs to play its part in whole-of-government processes, including for Cabinet – and that means that we need to get organised in time to play our part. But don’t ask for exceptions unless it is genuinely unforeseen and desperately needed – each slot is precious up here, and disruptions have aftershocks that can spread chaos far and wide.

Governing well often comes down to executing basic skills with a high degree of reliability.

As I noted previously, the APS does most of the day to day running of the government machine. You make an enormous range of delegated decisions, with direct impacts on citizens. It is vital that this work be done in good faith, with appropriate checks and balances.

I have no intention of micro-managing the Department from Parliament House – the Secretary and the Departmental leadership team run the place, and are responsible for putting systems and processes in place to ensure that it runs well.

But in the end, I have the portfolio accountability to Parliament, so I expect that you will keep me closely informed about potential operational problems (nobody likes unpleasant surprises!), how they are tracking and what you are doing to fix them.

Governing is complex and difficult. Uncertainty is an integral part of life, and not everything we try is going to work. But I expect you will plan carefully to prevent the avoidable mistakes, and to move quickly to help sort out the unavoidable ones.

In the end, the organisational literature suggests that high-performing organisations aren’t defined by their systems and processes. They are defined by having a strong culture with a clear shared purpose. People come to work believing that what they do worthwhile and that they are valued, so they are committed to do their work as well as they can.

In the Australian Westminster system, it’s not appropriate for me to ask for your loyalty to me personally as the Minister, or to the government’s policy agenda – and I have no intention of doing so.

Instead, in our system, your loyalty is properly aligned to the institution in which you serve – the APS – which makes a critical contribution to our democratic governance through its support of the government of the day. So it is through the medium of that institutional loyalty, not through personal or partisan loyalty, that we commit together to the shared purpose of serving the Australian people.

I look forward to working with you all in that shared national endeavour.

Thank you

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