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Six ways public servants can build relationships with a new government

1 March 2018

News and media



A change of government is a major challenge for public servants, and highlights the fragility and complexity of their relationship with politicians.

So what can public servants do to quickly build relationships with an incoming government?

Griffith University’s Professor Anne Tiernan has studied transition planning across several governments and recently presented an ANZSOG workshop in Wellington, ‘Times of transition: working with a new government’, for an audience of NZ public servants working with the new Ardern Government.

The issue will have relevance across Australia in the coming 12 months: Tasmania and South Australia are currently in election mode, Victoria goes to the polls in November this year and NSW in March 2019.

Professor Tiernan said that new governments and ministers face a paradox in their early days in government.

They must deliver on:

an unrepeatable chance to start afresh
implement a mandate and the chance to start afresh
and achieve policy goal.

But this is combined with a lack of experience and knowledge about how government really works.

“An immense amount of learning needs to occur in a short time, and this poses genuine challenges for the public services as they try to adapt to new priorities and form new relationships,” she said.

“The most useful thing you can be doing as a public servant is listening to not just what the new government is saying, but how they are saying it.

Although some ministers have served in government before, many have not, and have difficulty adjusting to a bigger workload, more responsibility and scrutiny, as well as working with a large, hierarchical and process-driven department rather than a small team of political staff.

Regardless of their political views, all governments confront the same imperatives which require support from public services.

They need to:

Make the transition from campaigning to government
Develop mechanisms to achieve coherence and to project competence from early in their term.
Bargain and exchange to achieve desired outcomes because of their various dependencies (in parliament, their party room, with external stakeholders, the media, and the public).
Make decisions across the spectrum of their responsibilities – which requires advice and routines.
Prioritise, manage the agenda, manage their time and preserve political capital.
Develop capacities to cope with crises and unexpected events.
Prepare for the ever-closer prospect of the next election.

Professor Tiernan says agencies can build trust with the minister and their staff, by remembering six key principles:

1. Be professional – discharging their obligations to provide expert, professional and impartial advice and support to the government of the day.2. Be appropriately responsive. Offering advice on systems and processes to get the office up and running; dealing with backlogs of correspondence.3. Be proactive – working with the ministerial office to clarify the Minister’s priorities, preferences and working style.4. Seek reauthorisation of projects and activities, to ensure they align with the Minister’s agenda.5. Do the ‘little things’ well.6. Understand they are but one part of what ministers do and that their advice is contestable.

The last point is particularly important, as elected politicians have a range of sources of advice, as well as a complex network of obligations to stakeholders and other actors in the political system.

As a result, politicians will not share the same priorities as their public servants.

“It is the unelected public servants who are there to serve the needs of elected officials, not the other way around,” Professor Tiernan said.

“Not every minister is policy-oriented, and all have other professional and personal responsibilities.”

She said that her research in Australia had found that the major political parties had different expectations about the role of the public service. Coalition ministers wanted advice about how the government’s policy agenda could effectively be implemented, whereas Labor ministers looked to the public service for strategic advice, ideas and options.

Former Australian federal minister Nicola Roxon had some frank and fearless advice in a speech last year which expressed some of her disappointment at agencies’ inability to adapt to a new government or a new minister.

Ms Roxon said that:

“Across the entire material coming up from the department, there was lacking any sense that public servants writing those briefs had actually looked afresh at what they were writing to ask if it was consistent with public statements, promises or commitments that had been made by the new government.

“Being a content expert is no help if you can’t keep across the initiatives that your minister is talking about or the commitments they’ve made. Whether you like those initiatives or not, the minister expects you to know about them, acknowledge them, address them — if they’re relevant — in your advice.

“Finding that middle path is what excellent public servants are able to do,” she said. “The point is that your expertise and advice can more easily be followed and absorbed by ministers if it’s set in a context that acknowledges the positions already taken by the government.”

Professor Tiernan says that as well as the day-to-day details, public servants need to understand the ‘narrative’ of a new government.

“All governments come to office with a story, or more accurately many fragments of a story. It is important for public servants to understand the narrative of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘success’ as told by the incoming government.

“In New Zealand, new Prime Minister Ardern’s personal style is the foundation of the government’s narrative. It’s open, accessible, contemporary, inclusive and ordinary.”

Properly understanding the narratives of government can provide opportunities to interpret and influence, and help the new government implement high-quality policy.

Public servants need to recognise that things will not be going back to the old government’s way of doing things – as uncomfortable as that can be for those who have spent years working within that framework.

Career public servants need to remember that change is part of the bargain they entered into when they began their careers, and learning to adapt to it is vital for success.