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What ministers really want: former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett gives the lowdown

22 November 2021

News and media


Image of Parliament house in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


Politicians face huge pressures, have limited time and attention spans and are besieged by competing priorities. Public servants who want to make any impact, and deliver good policy, need to understand how ministers think and what they want in terms of policy advice.

Participants in ANZSOG’s Future Public Sector Leaders’ masterclass Forming public policy in a complex, crisis driven authorising environment were given a unique insight into what ministers are looking for from their agencies by former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett (below).

Mr Bartlett told participants he had worked as both a junior public servant, a departmental Deputy Secretary, a ministerial chief of staff, and then as Tasmanian Premier from 2008 to 2011.

“From the unique perspective I’ve got, I want to impart some of the experiences I’ve had to help you unpack and understand what’s going on in the authorising environment and become more influential with your advice,” he said.

“Politics constrains public policy and understanding that environment, while being and remaining apolitical, is an important part of being influential.”

“I think I’m a bit concerned about Australian politics in every jurisdiction, that we are losing a bit of that art of stewardship and of giving frank and fearless advice. We are increasingly seeing ministers who have six dot points on a page, that’s their policy and they tell the public service just go out there and deliver it.”

Mr Bartlett said that public sector leaders could increase their influence and impact without becoming politicised, but simply by better understanding the political environment, thinking about their ministers’ personal styles and goals, and the overall narrative of the government they were serving.

“One key role of public service is to help ministers, particularly new ministers, understand what their role is. Are they the CEO, the Chairman of the Board? Part of our role is to help the minister understand their role, and make sure that they are sticking to it, and aren’t interfering in what is rightfully the frank and fearless advice/stewardship area. The public sector is far more complex than business, you have multiple bottom lines and a range of stakeholders to deal with,” he said.

Mr Bartlett said that as a minister he had wanted public servants around the table when decisions were being debated and quoted former Commonwealth Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner as saying that he wanted advisers: ‘to be frank and fearless – up until I’ve made my decision”.

Understanding your minister

Mr Bartlett discussed Professor Mark Moore’s strategic triangle, and the key concept of the ‘authorising environment’ – created by politicians and key stakeholders – that allows policy to be implemented.

“Mark Moore says that in order to create public value we need to have a legitimate, politically sustainable offering in the authorising environment. If it hasn’t been acknowledged by the authorising environment with continuing authority and resourcing it’s not policy, it’s a policy aspiration.”

He said that ministers were always attempting to deal with short-term crises along with the demands of long-term policy and their already short attention spans were even shorter in a crisis.

“Unless it’s a problem they want to solve it won’t be sustainable in the authorising environment. “Premiers and minsters often have pet projects they are attached to, which will get more attention and resources.

He said that public servants needed to start thinking about their ministers as individuals and how they could tailor their work to suit them.

“Ministers are human too – we often see them as black boxes, we send briefing notes up and they sign it and it comes back – occasionally they’ll ask us for options, but this is happening less and less.

He outlined a typology of ministers, set out by UK academic Bruce Headley in 1974, which he said still summed up the different approaches to the job.

Maintenance Ministers
The Spruiker
The Policy Driver
The Warrior
The Partisan

He said that every minister left a ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ behind them on their way up the political ladder – in the form of speeches, articles and interviews – which could give public servants an insight into what they believed and how they wanted to approach the role.

“If you observe the trail of breadcrumbs they leave behind, you could probably think about which of these archetypes they fit.

He said that in practical terms, ministers had different learning styles. Some needed to read to understand, others wanted to talk and debate issues.

“Personally, I would often say, ‘just bring the six or seven people who wrote this briefing note to me and let me listen and talk to them’ because that’s how I learn.”

“We really need to understand this, so we can get some cut through in times of crisis or with ministers who don’t often engage in public policy.”

He used a paper written by former senior public servant and ministerial chief of staff Allan Behm to outline the values that minsters were looking for in advice – starting with the basics of timeliness, achievability and factual accuracy, high-level advice that understood government policies and priorities, consultation across government and political awareness.

Mr Bartlett said that one of the key things ministers were looking for was advice that helped them to ‘market government policies’ and that this could be done in a non-political way.

“What I am looking for is the information that helps me understand how this policy will affect people’s lives, and that helps me tell the story of how it will change lives for the better. This is the bit that minsters really value, the bit that helps me tell the story and, in my view, this can be done in an apolitical way.”

Understanding the government’s narrative

All governments have a ‘narrative’ which influenced the authorising environment, Mr Bartlett said, and that public servants needed to understand this in order to be influential.

“Governments are looking at the options coming from the public service and are going to choose the ones that are affordable and will fit our policies,” he said.

He said narratives were often driven by election campaigning, and He said that in Australia there were only six basic kinds of election campaign narratives that could be used by governments and oppositions.

New Hope (for example Kevin Rudd in 2007)
Time’s Up (similar to new hope but with more focus on incumbent)
Don’t Change Horses (often run by governments going for a second term)
Are they experienced? (similar to ‘Don’t Change Horses’ but more focused on opposition)
We’ve listened and learned (can be run by both oppositions and incumbents)
Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (Campaign based on fear – can be run by both governments and oppositions)

Mr Bartlett said that the narrative of the government was important both in the lead up to the campaign and in the aftermath, as the winner tried to deliver on promises, and that public servants needed to understand how their policies or programs could interact with the narrative.

Mr Bartlett said that he believed Australia’s success in dealing with COVID-19 had not just changed the authorising environment for the public sector, but had also shown how the public sector could operate more flexibly and effectively.

“There’s a difference between avoiding risk and managing risk, and in a pandemic we were better able to be flexible and manage risk. We need to think about how we can embrace these things and hold on to those gains.”

ANZSOG’s Future Public Sector Leaders’ series gives participants access to informed insiders who can give their unique insights into the work of government. The series will continue into 2022 with masterclasses from Professor Anne Tiernan, Professor Dana Born, Lil Anderson and Nick Fleming

Future public sector leaders’ aims to inspire and educate hard-working and passionate emerging leaders, providing an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and professional growth. The FPSL is a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ style series which puts you in control of your online learning experience and lets agencies choose from various packages that fit their development needs.

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