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Fixing the ‘demand side’ – helping ministers perform

27 September 2021

News and media


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By Sally Washington, ANZSOG Executive Director Aotearoa-New Zealand

The key dimensions of an effective relationship between Ministers and their public service policy advisors were outlined in a previous article; which explored how to create conditions which help ministers become ‘good customers’ for policy advice and actively support improvements in public service policy capability. These conditions need to be negotiated up-front as part of a ‘policy pre-nup’ (see diagram) This article moves upstream and deals with setting a strategic policy program, identifying policy priorities, and agreeing an operating model to support ministers to do their job well.

Manifestos – the bare bones of a policy program

Governments are elected based on a party manifesto – their policy promises to the electorate. In theory the public service must immediately pivot from any previous government program to enthusiastically embrace and execute the program of its new political masters. In practice, party manifestos usually only cover the bare bones of government business. Where a coalition partner is involved, those bones are picked over and subject to negotiation and adjustment. Even where there is an absolute majority, no government starts with a clean slate. There are likely more legacy items and ongoing business as usual than new policies and programs in an incoming government’s overall workload. So, how can the public service help ministers set a strategic policy program that articulates their manifesto promises, aligns existing work programs with that intent, and leaves space for emerging or future issues?

The first dance – it takes two to tango

Like any new relationship, especially when there’s been a previous ‘partner’, you need to establish trust. The first opportunity to do this is through early discussion with a new minister.

Long-serving chief of staff to PM Key in NZ, Wayne Eagleson, advised the South Australian public service in 2018 on how to help new ministers ‘feel in charge’. Among other things, he advised chief executives to:

“Work with ministers to ensure clarity and alignment moving forward

Put yourself in their shoes — understand the politics even though it is their job to manage the politics. “

There are conventions around this first dance process. A ‘Brief to the incoming Minister’ or ‘BIM’ is an opportunity to show that the public service understands what the new government wants to achieve. Many departments prepare more than one brief – a blue and a red – with slightly different flavours to account for different party manifestos. But the bulk of the briefing will be purple and common to whichever party wins. It should also be free and frank. It should tell ministers what they need to hear not what departments think they want to hear. Cabinet offices set the ground rules. In NZ, Cabinet office guidance states: “each departmental chief executive must ensure that, as soon as possible, the Minister receives a briefing covering organisational issues, major policy issues, and issues needing immediate attention.” In the 2020 NZ election some 150 documents were presented to incoming ministers. Notably, all were publicly released.

What about the other dance partner? What can ministers do to establish a good relationship with their departments? They need to articulate what they want to achieve, but they should be open to advice on the best way to get there. Does this mean just implementation advice or actual advice on policy settings? Prime Minister Morrison has made his views clear on this front, stressing that “It is Ministers who provide policy leadership and direction” and that the public service should “get on and deliver the Government’s agenda”. However, as noted above, that agenda is not always clear or detailed enough to ‘get on and deliver’. As a former UK minister said recently, “from my point of view, while I was very clear what our manifesto was, I was at that stage not at all clear of what our final policy prescriptions would look like.”  And there are multiple examples of where departments, often through their briefs to incoming governments, have had a major impact on a new government’s policy thinking. The NZ Treasury’s influential post-election briefing papers in the 1980s shaped policy directions for decades. Ministers would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore ideas and advice from policy experts, especially their own officials. Officials also hold the institutional knowledge on previous decisions taken, why, and with what success (or failure).

Define the program – get with the program

There are a range of more, or less, formal tools to help minister articulate their strategic priorities to their departments, like letters of strategic intent. In Australia there is an implicit responsibility on departments, and in NZ an explicit responsibility, to also include stewardship responsibilities, or longer-term considerations, in developing an overall work program. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, legislative change means departments must produce regular Long term Insights Briefings, designed to proactively inform the agenda of political parties and ensure a focus beyond the timeframe of an election cycle.

Some ministers are especially open to debate on policy direction. Respected former NZ PM and Minister of Finance Sir Bill English held regular ‘chew’ sessions with officials – not as informal as ‘chewing the fat’ but definitely an opportunity to discuss broad policy challenges before formally commissioning any advice on how to deal with them. Other ministers adopted this approach with things like exploratory white-board sessions with officials. In the 1990s Premier House sessions (named after the NZ PMs official residence where the meetings were held) involved collective discussions between Ministers and senior officials – one using a transport metaphor to think about work already on the books (train left the station), policy work ready to go (trains stoked and ready to roll) and work that could be jump started (awaiting signals at the station). This appeared to support an ‘in it together’ relationship between the government and the public service at the time.

Adjusting the program – good commissioning is key

Managing a policy program is not a set-and-forget task. Things change, as Covid 19 has taught us. Even in less fraught times problems arise that require adjustments to the policy program. Moreover, energetic ministers and officials alike are constantly seeking opportunities to do things better or do better things – acting on opportunities for innovation require less important policies and programs to be dropped in favour of something new. Ministers and officials need to agree some processes for re-prioritisation or de-prioritisation to occur.

That means setting ground rules for new initiatives and for adjusting the previously agreed policy program. It also means ensuring policy demands are recorded, understood, and not ‘lost in translation’. Good commissioning is crucial, with clarity on what is being asked for, why, by when, and who should be involved (including stakeholders and other ministers). Poor commissioning was a constant theme in assessments of policy capability in New Zealand in the early days of The Policy Project (a program to improve the quality of advice across government).

Messages can get muddled in translation from ministers down the food chain to the people actually developing advice. To help departments with commissioning, some conversation prompts were developed as part of a policy project management tool (Start Right). Something similar could be developed to guide upstream demand side conversations between ministers and officials. Alarmingly, but understandably, ministers sometimes come into the role not knowing how to actually ask for advice from officials. And that’s not the only area where they might be flying blind.

Do ministers need training?

A recent report by the UK Policy Exchange set out some options for ‘empowering success’ for ministers, including ministerial ‘training’. In the UK, the Institute for Government (IFG) think tank provides some bespoke training for ministers and shadow ministers, but in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia there is, arguably, less support available. Central agencies and cabinet secretaries provide some induction on constitutional conventions and what to expect from the public service, and seasoned ministers sometimes act as mentors to junior colleagues. In Australia the McKinnon Institute’s Advanced Political Leadership course, designed for members of parliament who are potential ministers in the short to medium term, is a welcome arrival.

Anecdotally, formal training is often shunned by politicians not wanting to appear as if they don’t know something (especially in front of their colleagues). The IFG’s Ministers Reflect series includes interviews with ex-ministers on what they wished they’d known before taking on the role. One former minister described his first day on the job like “the first day at primary school”. Being thrown in at the deep end is a common theme in the interviews. The IFG concludes that,” Given they are responsible for serious matters which affect everyday life, helping ministers properly prepare for their jobs would clearly be to the benefit of us all.” The same could be said for cohorts in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia.

Brokers and facilitators – ministerial offices and advisors

Where ministers do get support is through their private office. A former UK minister said that to be effective, ministers must “decide how, and communicate to your private office how, you want to live your life.” Who is in the private office, how they relate to departmental officials, and articulating an ‘operating model’ for how things are run, is crucial.

Concerns have been raised about the number of political staff in ministers’ offices and their role. This has been less a factor in Aotearoa-New Zealand than in Australia, although in Aotearoa-New Zealand the Public Service Commissioner launched a pre-emptive strike with a code of conduct specifically for ministerial office staff. Staff seconded from departments remain subject to the usual public service code of conduct. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, while maybe not a trend, there is evidence of an increase in seniority of staff seconded into ministers’ offices. Initially this was to provide more support to less experienced ministers but the value of having someone who knows the terrain, and has some standing in it, is obvious (and potentially can alter the power balance with political staff).

Whoever is in the minister’s office, they need to work together to support the minister and to maintain good relationships with departments and officials. As the ‘eyes and ears of the minister’ they need to ensure the minister knows what’s going on in the department and that the department is given early warning about the ministers thinking or future demands for advice. This includes substantive insights from meetings with stakeholders and other ministers, to more administrative issues like the minister’s preferences about how advice is presented, and who is in the room for discussions.

Rules of engagement – agree an operating model

It is important to get the operating model right – having an explicit discussion and setting some ground rules up front can help. For example, some ministers are readers, others prefer oral briefings, some love, and others hate, visual aids. In Aotearoa-New Zealand, A3s – or visual representations of advice, either standalone or to summarise written advice – became standard practice to the extent that consulting firms offer training in how to do a great A3. But one previous minister told officials in no uncertain terms that he did not want to be briefed with “*-ing cartoons”.

Similarly, some ministers prefer to only have senior officials in the room for discussion, others want to hear from the person who actually prepared the advice. Former UK Cabinet Secretary, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, was known for including policy worker bees in briefings to the British Prime Minister or cabinet. A former colleague noted: “Heywood would always involve the person actually doing the work. Generous, yes, but also more effective. Having the 20 or 30-something ‘three brained’ official (rather than her boss’s boss) there in the room both saved time communicating ‘down the hierarchy’ and was respectful of their policy work and advice.” The biography on Heywood provides excellent training on how to be an effective public servant. The NZ Treasury, supported by authorising ministers over the years, also has a history of people further down the food chain being involved in discussions with the minister – the upshot is that the minister gets the real oil and the official a great development experience.

It’s all about trust

Confident ministers generally have an appetite for free and frank advice. Chris Hipkins, Aotearoa New-Zealand minister for lots of things (Education, COVID-19, the Public Service) set that tone for his colleagues when he called for more ‘hard-hitting advice’ saying “Ministers aren’t mushrooms, they shouldn’t be kept in the dark…Even if at the end of the day I reject the advice I’m given, I think I’d make a better decision for being properly informed than if I was making that decision in ignorance”. Senior officials and ministerial office staff can help create a safe place for this to occur. As former head of the NZ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said “Trust creates the space for free and frank advice. Where the relationship between Ministers and advisors is high trust and respectful, there is and always has been room for candid and challenging views to be aired. Where relationships are weaker, a much less constructive exchange occurs”.

Like any relationship, if both sides have a common understanding about overall priorities, and some ground rules about how they interact, then it is easier to have ‘courageous conversations’ about how decisions get made and implemented. In the case of ministers and their officials, that means better decisions for the public they serve.

A version of this article first appeared in The Mandarin

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