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Inside knowledge on how to get relationships with ministers right

8 August 2023

News and media


Relationships between ministers and officials are fundamental to any Westminster system of government. The foundation of those relationships, like any relationship, is trust and mutual respect.

In Australia the Robodebt Royal Commission has shown what happens when these relationships break down, and the importance of public servants offering frank and fearless advice. In Aotearoa New Zealand an upcoming election and preparations for post-election briefings and agreeing priorities with new ministers (or with the same ministers depending on the election results) will make building relationships a key focus.

A new publication in the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s Research Insights series, Ministers and officials: how to get the relationship right offers insights into how to build strong relationships between ministers and officials, including how to support ministers as customers of policy advice. It gives practical strategies and tips to help public servants to develop the political ‘nous’ to be influential and support good-decision making in a political environment – without losing their impartiality.

The guide is based on a collaboration between ANZSOG and the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand which led to three dialogues between current and former politicians, public servants, and ministerial advisors, with the aim of shedding light on the key dimensions that make the public servant/minister relationship work effectively.

If both sides have a common understanding about key priorities and ground rules about how they interact, then it is easier to have ‘courageous conversations’. In the case of ministers and their officials, that means better decisions for the public they serve.

Relationships between Ministers and Officials - Key dimensions: setting a strategic policy programme, commissioning advice, operating model, and quality policy advice

The first session offered an overview of relationships at the political administrative interface, while the two subsequent sessions dug deeper into ‘political nous’ as a key skill or capability for ensuring those relationships are functioning well. The second session was targeted at new professionals; the third session was for a more senior audience including exploring what they could do to support early career colleagues to develop their political nous muscles.

The panels for the three dialogues included:

  • Hon Carmel Sepuloni (Aotearoa New Zealand Minister, and now Deputy Prime Minister)
  • Sir Bill English KNZM (former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance)
  • Wayne Eagleson (former Chief of Staff to Prime Ministers Sir John Key and Sir Bill English)
  • Peter Mersi (Chief Executive of the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) and Acting Head of the Policy Profession)
  • Deb Te Kawa (IPANZ Board member, consultant, and former senior public servant)
  • Tory Whanau, Mayor of Te Whanganui-a Tara (Wellington);
  • Mike Munro (former chief of staff to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and press Secretary to Prime Minister Helen Clark)
  • Paul James, (Chief Executive of Te Tari Taiwhenua, Department of Internal Affairs, and Government Chief Digital Officer)

These experienced practitioners offered advice to public servants at all levels looking to better understand what ministers want and need, and how they can build their astuteness and political nous to have more influence and impact.

They agreed that in a political environment that is increasingly volatile, and complicated by misinformation and disinformation on social media, it becomes more difficult for the impartial advice of the public service to cut through.

The rise of ‘polycentric governance’ – where government is not the only ‘provider’ but needs to work in partnership with others to deliver public services and achieve policy outcomes (including the various ‘co-s’ – collaboration, co-design, co-deliver, co-govern) – also means that political nous will become an ever more important skill.

The chart below is one of the resources from the guide and summarises different methods for building political nous, depending on where you are in your public service career.

How can you build your political nous policy muscle?

Ministers and officials: how to get the relationship right is freely available through ANZSOG’s Research Insights series and contains more insights on how to build and maintain effective relationships between ministers and officials

These articles contain further practical information on building the relationship between ministers and officials: