Ministers and Officials: Building the Relationship with Political Nous
16 May 2023● News and media
Effective relationships between ministers and officials are essential for good government decision-making. ANZSOG and the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) have partnered on a series of three events to explore different dimensions of the relationship between public servants and ministers.
The first session in the series explored a range of factors that influence the quality of relationships at the political-administrative interface. It included a former Prime Minister and the current deputy Prime Minister. That discussion was reported in an article published last year. This article, by ANZSOG’s Aotearoa New Zealand Executive Director Sally Washington and Research Officer Dr Honae Cuffe, draws on insights from the last two sessions– a workshop for new professionals a panel discussion for a more senior audience – which took a deep-dive into political nous: what it is, why it’s important, and how to grow it.
Political nous is essential for public servants striving to deliver great advice that will have influence and impact. Political nous doesn’t just relate to ‘Big P’ politics but includes the wider policy ecosystem inside and outside government. It is valuable for any role where advice is being provided to decision-makers, whether in the public, private or non-governmental sectors.
Political savvy (or nous) is included in the New Zealand Policy Skills Framework (Figure 1) as one of the 15 key skills required for designing and delivering good policy advice. The framework also includes ‘understanding context and priorities’ as a key knowledge domain. The framework offers detailed descriptions of those skills at different levels of experience (Figure 2 and 3): developing (‘starting out’), practicing (‘a safe pair of hands’), and expert (‘top of the game’). It refers to an ability to build alignment between competing interests and agenda, being able to have courageous conversations while sustaining good relationships and being highly attuned to signals and changes in the political and policy ecosystems (having sensitive political antennae).
Figure 2. Adapted from the Policy Skills Framework
Figure 3. Adapted from the Policy Skills Framework
What does political nous look like when it’s being done well?
The IPANZ/ANZSOG panel shared their views on what the exercise of political nous looks like when it’s being done well – and when it isn’t.
Mayor of Te Whanganui-a Tara (Wellington) Tory Whanau drew on her experience in central and local government, both as an advisor (Chief of staff to the Green party) and now elected official. She agreed that political nous has been a key skill when navigating the political landscape. She described political nous as an ability to develop and embrace emotional intelligence, including learning how to read people and understand how they will react to information and accommodating this when preparing policy advice.
Within this definition, Mayor Whanau identified three key elements that contribute to genuine political nous and good relationships with ministers:
- Relationship management – you must treat all people with respect.
- Be across all the issues and the connections between issues.
- Learn how to manage crises.
Former Prime Minister’s chief of staff Mike Munro agreed that political nous involved understanding ministers, their philosophies and backgrounds and what drives them. Reading what ministers write and listening to their speeches, particularly maiden speeches, are a key avenue for developing this insight. Experienced public service chief executive Paul James described this as acting with “customer centricity”, encouraging public servants to think about what a minister’s world looks like. Walk in their shoes: what has been asked of them by the party, Parliament, and their electorate, what are their constraints and priorities, and how do these factors shape what they are trying to achieve?
Political nous helps public servants be more influential and impactful in their relationships with ministers. If you understand the customer of advice, you build trust and confidence with them. If you know how to hit the mark at the right time – which takes judgement – then you will be more likely to have influence and impact on the issues of the day as well as being able to help shape the future policy agenda. It helps smooth the path to implementation of policy and programmes – ‘to get things done’.
But political nous is not about second guessing a minister – trying to be a ‘ministerial whisper’ – or about telling a minister what you think they want to hear. It does mean being aware of the preferences of individual ministers (how, when and in what form they like to receive advice), the influence and intervention of political advisors in ministers’ offices, and the relative political power of different departments which comes with the discretion to frame policy options and amplify certain evidence and perspectives. Political nous doesn’t mean getting involved in politics, nor does it mean avoiding politics. Rather it means that public servants need to understand politics, and be able to work at the political interface, while at the same time maintaining their political neutrality.
Paul James observed that honesty and deliberately articulating to ministers that public servants have an obligation to deliver free and frank advice is key to mitigating any risk of political nous evolving into impartiality or pandering. Recent research from a Working in the Public Service survey showed that public servants in Aotearoa are pretty clear on what it means to be politically neutral and are confident that politicised advice or politically inappropriate behaviour is quickly nipped in the bud. Political nous, like housework, stands out more when it’s not being done.
So, is the public service in Aotearoa politically astute? Research conducted by Hartley et al. a decade ago asked 1000 senior managers from New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom to rate themselves and their peers on their political astuteness. New Zealand participants rated themselves as ‘above average’ (a statistical impossibility) and their peers as slightly ‘below average’. Moreover, the New Zealand cohort thought more highly of themselves than cohorts in the other two jurisdictions. It would be interesting to see if that confidence still holds, and whether it is warranted.
Is political nous innate or can you grow it?
The panel agreed that political nous, like good judgement, grows with experience. But some experiences are more likely to help the growth process. They offered practical advice for new professionals about the experiences and mindsets they should seek out to help develop their political astuteness. Curiosity is critical, with all panellists encouraging new professionals to expose themselves to a variety of experiences and perspectives; pay attention to the news and current events and who’s saying what and why, seize opportunities to work at the interface between the worlds of the public service and politics, like spending time in a minister’s office.
On that note, the IPANZ New Professionals group have sent a memo to the Policy Profession Board seeking support for developing their political nous, including three key ‘asks’:
- Let us see political nous in action: let us sit in on meetings with senior leaders or ministers where we will see experienced people operating with political nous.
- Share your insights with us after meetings with ministers or senior leaders. Tell us what you did and said and the responses and reactions.
- Build political nous into induction and ongoing professional development. Make explicit your expectations about where the boundaries sit in relationships with departments, ministers, and ministers’ offices.
Is it getting tougher to be politically astute?
The panel touched on the increasing volatility of politics, and how misinformation and disinformation particularly via social media, complicates the political and policy landscape, making it more challenging to navigate and more difficult for the impartial advice of the public service to cut through. 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) means that political nous will become an ever more important skill.
Ensuring we support younger cohorts to develop their political astuteness, savvy or nous is vital, as is ensuring that the institutions of government encourage and enable individuals to flex their political nous muscles. If all public servants understand the political context and how political considerations intersect with and shape how advice is received and acted on, they can deliver more relevant and salient advice. Well-honed political nous means the public service can provide better advice – and that means better support for good government decision making.
 Speakers were Deb Te Kawa (IPANZ Board member, consultant, and former senior public servant) and Steven Sutton (Special Counsel Russel McVeagh law and former senior public servant).
 The panel included Mayor of Te Whanganui-a Tara (Wellington) Tory Whanau; Mike Munro (former chief of staff to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and press Secretary to Prime Minister Helen Clark); and Paul James (Chief Executive of Te Tari Taiwhenua, Department of Internal Affairs, and Government Chief Digital Officer).
ANZSOG, Ministers and officials: How to get the relationship right | ANZSOG, 29 August, 2022.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Policy Skills, Accessed, April, 2023.
Gill, D. The State of the Core State – is the glass mainly full or partly empty? Public Sector, April 2023.
Hartley, J. Alford, J. Hughes, O. and Yates, S, Leading with political astuteness: a study of public managers in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, ANZSOG and the Chartered Management Institute, United Kingdom. 2013.
Washington, S. The “demand side”: Helping ministers to be intelligent customers of policy services, Public Sector, July 2022.