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Ministers and officials: How to get the relationship right

29 August 2022

News and media


Participants were given cards and invited to leave their ideas for building great relationships between ministers and officials.

Great relationships between ministers and senior public servants are crucial for good government decision-making. Engagement across the political-administrative divide requires effort and understanding on both the demand and the supply side of the relationship. ANZSOG and the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) recently co-hosted a panel discussion in Wellington to explore some of the gnarly issues at the political-administrative interface facilitated by Sally Washington, ANZSOG Executive Director Aotearoa New Zealand.

The event drew on ANZSOG’s recent work to explore the dimensions of relationships between ministers and officials – from setting a strategic policy programme, to establishing an operating model for the relationship between departments and ministers’ offices, and to ensuring ministers request and receive free, frank and high-quality advice, something which IPANZ has a long-standing interest in promoting. The panel featured representatives from both the political and the public service sides of the relationship, including:

  • Hon Carmel Sepuloni – Aotearoa New Zealand Minister for Social Development and Employment, Minister for ACC, Minister for Disability Issues and Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage;
  • 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;
  • Professor Ken Smith AO (ANZSOG Dean and Chief Executive) and Dr Kay Booth (IPANZ Executive Director) delivered introductory and closing remarks.

The event was held under the Chatham House rule, but this article, by Ms Washington summarises the discussion including some practical ideas for building better relationships.

The relationship between ministers and officials is fundamental to our system of government

The foundation of the relationship between ministers and officials, like any relationship, is mutual respect. It needs to be based on honesty, openness, and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. When working at its best, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ becomes ‘we’ – working together in the interests of better government decisions, policies, and programmes. So, what can both sides do to ensure the relationship is working at its best?

In his introductory remarks, Professor Smith said that the political environment could not be avoided, and that political context differentiated the work of public sector leaders from other sectors.

It’s important to get the relationship right between ministers, the political system, and public servants. The intersection with the political system is fundamental to our system of government. Public servants need to be able to operate within a political system without being political – it’s about political astuteness,” he said.

The panel was asked to avoid the rabbit hole of debating whether there has been a reduction in free and frank advice (and whether the supply or the demand side is at fault), and to focus instead on the positive question of ‘what does good look like?’, How might we build excellent relationships between ministers and officials in the interests of better decision-making? The panel was asked for their views on:

  • What are the vital things that make this relationship the best it can be?
  • What do Ministers and ministerial offices need from their public service advisors?
  • What are the biggest failures and frustrations on both sides?
  • How do public servants develop political nous while preserving the principles of political neutrality and free and frank advice?
  • Do Ministers receive the training they need to operate effectively?
  • How might the public service support ministers to be more intelligent customers of advice?

How can Ministers ensure good relationships with officials?

To establish and build a great relationship with their officials Ministers can…

  • Be clear about what you want to achieve – the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ – but ask for help from officials on how to make it happen – the ‘how’ and ‘who’. Have open discussions with officials early and often so you are both clear on the direction of travel.
  • Get your office in order – set expectations that political advisors and others in the office act as a bridge not a barrier, and work constructively with departmental officials to achieve results.
  • Ask good questions – be able to interrogate advice and the analysis that underpins it. Even ‘dumb’ questions can often expose group think and encourage innovative options from officials. There are no dumb questions when it comes to process and procedures and how policy will be implemented.
  • Invite ‘scary’ new ideas. Explain to officials that ‘no surprises’ just means that “bad news should travel faster than good news”. It doesn’t mean avoiding new things or ‘good surprises’.
  • Allow space in work programmes for longer-term thinking and stewardship responsibilities – the investment might be part of your legacy.

How can officials build good relationships with Ministers?

For their part officials can…

  • Advise freely, frankly, and fearlessly – and implement enthusiastically. You are there to support good decision making but you are not the decision maker. Understand yours is only one source of advice – you will need to be ‘best in class’ to have influence. Bring multiple perspectives into your advice – help the minister to see beyond the silo of the portfolio and where collaboration at the political and administrative levels is required for effective implementation.
  • Avoid trying to be a ‘ministerial whisperer’ – ask, don’t assume, or second-guess what the minister is thinking or wants. Allow the minister some space for ‘throat-clearing’ or debate – understand that musing or thinking out loud does not equal commissioning or a decision. Clarify the commission – what advice is required by when.
  • Show political nous – being politically neutral or non-partisan doesn’t mean being apolitical. Understand the politics without getting involved in the politics. The political administrative interface is more a fuzzy than a hard line. Support less experienced officials to build their muscles in political astuteness. Keep talking about what political savvy means – in theory and in practice.
  • Build trust by showing that you understand the overall government programme and your minister’s interests (articulated in manifestos, speeches, social media posts) and that you are there to help them achieve their goals. Remember: you build trust with Ministers very slowly, but you can spend it very quickly.
  • Be bold – don’t wait to be asked for advice. Be proactive in articulating current or emerging challenges or opportunities and how they could be handled. Flex your stewardship responsibilities.

Do ministers need better training?

A paper written for ANZSOG and the Review of the Australian Public Service (Thodey Review) noted that “…ministerial office frequently remains the last bastion of the amateur”. The panel was asked, “Do Ministers receive the training they need to operate effectively?” The consensus was that formal training – beyond that provided by central agencies and the Cabinet office – would be less effective than learning on-the-job. However, good support for ministers – from their office staff, departments, and more experienced ministerial colleagues as mentors – is essential. The fact that ministers come into the role, sometimes with no previous government experience, can be an advantage – ‘ordinary’ people being appointed to an extraordinary job is an important part of our representative democracy.

The session reflects ANZSOG’s and IPANZ’s mutual desire to collaborate in areas of common interest. Both organisations intend to co-host future sessions in Aotearoa – let us know what conversations you would like us to curate.

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