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Ministerial advisers and the contest of policy ideas

24 May 2023



The growing influence of ministerial advisers in parliamentary democracies has transformed what was once a pas de deux between ministers and senior public servants into a ménage à trois. An article in the International Review of Public Policy, assesses the impact of ministerial advisers on the contest of policy ideas. It concludes that advisers pose a greater threat to policy contestability than to public service impartiality.

The contest of policy ideas

Formal definitions of contestability are thin on the ground. It is akin to the definition of policy which is like the elephant – you know it when you see it but you cannot easily define it. Contestability also provokes reflection on procedural openness, transparency and ease of entry to or exit from the debate.

The article sees a contest between ideas as one which determines the most effective or efficient approach to a policy challenge. The standard view of contestability that it enhances the options available to ministers and improves the quality of policy deliberations. A contestable process can produce better outcomes by broadening the advice base and testing positions.

In recent decades the institutional preconditions for greater contestability have been established through reform processes. This has included re-engineering the public sector and advisory ecosystems which are made up of dense networks of policy actors. The emergence of ministerial advisers is one element of this policy advisory system.

Enter the adviser

Ministerial advisers have certain characteristics that set them apart from public servants. They are usually engaged for their political skills rather than their expertise and the duration of their tenure is generally tied to that of the minister. Ministerial advisers are formally exempt from any impartiality requirements that apply to public servants.

While it is often assumed that ministerial advisers are powerful players, leverage is a function of institutional design. In the Netherlands and Denmark, the limited number of advisers relative to the size of the public bureaucracy constrains their influence. Advisers are often seen as a shadow bureaucracy, contesting departments’ advice and serving as a conduit for external interests seeking to engage in the policy process.

About the research

The research examined whether advisers are a threat to public servants’ capacity to contribute to the policy contest. It drew on data collected from Aotearoa New Zealand public servants through surveys of public servants conducted roughly a decade apart. The survey respondents:

  • were either Chief Executives or two levels below.
  • came from policy, delivery and funding/purchasing agencies.
  • had relatively frequent contact with ministerial advisers.
  • were evenly split across genders.

What the research found

The survey results revealed:

  • Advisers are seen to hinder officials access to ministers.
  • An adviser’s presence can have an impact on a minister’s responsiveness to officials’ advice.
  • Advisers try to keep certain items off the policy agenda.
  • Advisers can facilitate interest groups’ engagement in the policy process.
  • Advisers can make a positive contribution to the policy process.

The research showed ministerial advisers often serve as political interpreters, representing ministers’ preferences to officials and translating officials’ responses in the other direction. In doing so, they shape the sense that one party makes of the position of the other. Even if advisers have no material influence over officials’ advice, they can influence the way in which that advice is framed and therefore on whether it is acted on, rejected or ignored by a minister.

Heightened concerns also emerged from responses to issues concerning the ebb and flow of policy ideas. A high proportion of respondents concurred that advisers stymie the provision of free and frank advice to ministers. Concerns were even more pronounced on the question of whether advisers obstruct the flow of public servants’ advice.

The bottom line

The major fear concerning ministerial advisers in parliamentary democracies has been about the integrity of the bureaucracy. However, there is a second and equally significant challenge posed by advisers: the rigour of the policy contest. The evidence points to growing disquiet regarding advisers’ capacity to constrain contestability. The research also reveals a marked deterioration in perceptions of the health of the relationship between public servants and advisers.

Part of the point of advisers is they control the flow of information that reaches the minister. What matters is how they exercise that control. Managing the tide of information to streamline ministers’ workloads is different to limiting competing policy perspectives.

Support for the idea that ministerial advisers encourage the supply of free and frank advice is falling and anxiety about their gate-keeper function is becoming more pronounced. It is difficult for officials to contribute meaningfully to the tussle of policy ideas if their access to ministers’ offices is compromised.

Want to read more? 

From ménage à trois back to pas de deux? Ministerial advisers, civil servants and the contest of policy ideas – Richard Shaw and Chris Eichbaum, International Review of Public Policy, 2020.

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Published Date: 24 May 2023