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How to sharpen your political nous in government

2 October 2023

News and media


Political nous is a key skill for public servants who want to be effective without being drawn into partisan politics. But it’s one that is rarely formally articulated.

It involves building trust with elected officials, understanding the broader political environment, and being bold and proactive, while at the same time, understanding there are right times and places for communicating ideas to decision-makers.

ANZSOG’s Practice Fellow, Sally Washington, has a long- standing interest in political nous and how it is part of developing good policy. She set up the New Zealand Policy Project, based in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has worked as an advisor to a minister and the Prime Minister, and has advised a range of organisations and jurisdictions on their policy capability, including through the OECD.

She is author of a recent ANZSOG Curated conversation in conjunction with IPANZ: Ministers and official: how to get the relationship right, a guide which was based on frank conversations with politicians and senior public servants. She has also explored the issue of political nous in this article for ANZSOG as well as writing on the importance of making ministers intelligent customers for policy advice and of building the infrastructure to support good policy advice.

Sally recently spoke at the McGuinness Institute in Wellington in one of their ‘Bursting Bubbles’ sessions on the topic of How to sharpen your political nous in government. The McGuinness Institute is a “non-partisan think tank working towards a sustainable future for New Zealand”, and the Bursting Bubbles series aims to expand thinking and ideas after the COVID-19 lockdowns. This article is based on a summary which first appeared on the McGuinness Institute’s blog.

Watch the full video of Sally Washington’s presentation:

Sally’s presentation aimed to demystify and contextualise political nous and relationships at the administrative political interface. She argued that these relationships can be codified and built to improve policy capability and policy advice, and therefore improve decision-making

She explained that her focus on the political administrative interface stemmed from examining how to deliver good advice and build the capability that underpins it. She argues that the ‘supply side’ of creating good advice for decision-makers means thinking about the policy infrastructure: all the processes, systems and tools that underpin good advice.

“We also need to think about the ‘demand-side’ and how to work with decision-makers, understanding their role in policy, and how to shape the authorising environment of advice,” she said.

Sally likens the relationships between ministers and officials to a marriage (albeit often not a long-term one), and breaks down the dimensions of that relationship into what she terms the ‘policy pre-nup’ with four key dimensions including:

  • Setting a strategic programme – agreeing policy priorities and leaving space for policy stewardship (emerging and future issues).
  • Commissioning advice – ground rules for new initiatives, adjusting the previously agreed policy programme, ensuring policy demands are not ‘lost in translation’.
  • Operating models – rules of the game for engagement between the minister their office and officials, including expectations of ‘free and frank’ advice, and communication of presentational preferences.
  • Quality policy advice- ensuring advice supports the decision-maker to take a fully-informed decision. Supporting ministers to be ‘intelligent customers’ of advice.

She set out some tips for improving relationships for both sides of the political administrative interface.

Ministers need to be clear about what they want to achieve; set expectations of their office staff; be able to ask good questions; invite ‘scary’ innovative ideas; and allow longer-term thinking in work programmes.

For officials, it is important to provide free, frank and fearless advice; don’t second guess ministers or try to be a ‘ministerial whisperer’; build trust with the decision-maker; be bold in proactively articulating challenges and including diverse views in advice; and exercise political nous.

The DOs and DON’Ts of political nous

Ms Washington identified six behaviours that demonstrate political nous:

  • Navigate the complexity: hone political antennae in order to understand the political ecosystem in its complexity, including the channels of influence and unwritten signals.
  • Hit the target: identify the right time and right place for approaching and communicating ideas to decision-makers … and acknowledge the ‘no-go zones’.
  • Respect other pressures: decision-makers are exposed to many sources of advice, so ‘seek and articulate alignment’ with those other pressures.
  • The power of persuasion: continue to develop a relationship of trust and confidence, strengthen and invest in future interactions.
  • Know the rules: importantly, be across the rules, obligations, advice and guidelines provided – like the code of conduct and Cabinet Manual – to inform behaviour and the ongoing relationship.
  • Have courageous conversations: be bold and proactive in giving advice.

She noted how political nous is, like housework, most visible when it is not present. She explained how the absence of political nous is seen in five characters:

  • The show-off: seeking the decision-maker’s attention for self-promotion
  • The strident advocate: acting as a lobbyist rather than presenting evidence-based ideas
  • The rogue: failing to follow due process
  • The blabber-mouth: not respecting the privacy of discussions with the minister and being detrimentally over-transparent
  • The sycophant: being desperate to be in the minister’s good books and not challenging ideas or initiatives with dubious merit.

The practical pursuit of sharpening political nous can be part of learning and development, as Sally explained. Using the ratio of 70% learning on the job, 20% learning from others, and 10% formal learning, she suggests various examples of actions and opportunities for advancing skills for the developing, practising, and expert levels.

She emphasised that it is both collective and individual efforts that deliver results: thinking about what can be done at team and organisational levels to help people build their skills in the general policy space.

“The bottom line is this is all about how do we create better decisions, how do we create better advice for better government decision-making that is going to be better for the people that the public service is here to serve?”

Thanks to the McGuinness Institute for allowing ANZSOG to republish the video and insights from the Bursting Bubbles event.