Dealing with ministerial advisers: a practical guide for public servants

It takes more than a code of conduct to foster good departmental relationships. AAP/Alan Porritt

The role of ministerial advisers and their relationship to public servants has been the subject of aserious public debate in recent weeks.

Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott caused a stir when she advocated that the number of ministerial advisers in the public service be halved. Less controversial was former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran’s suggestion that the code of conduct introduced by the Rudd government in 2008 be formally legislated, an initiative Westacott also supports.

Political advisers in ministers’ offices are here to stay, so the proposal for a legislated code of conduct is both a sound one and long overdue at both state and commonwealth levels.

But important as such codes are, they will not of themselves be sufficient to regulate the behaviour of ministerial advisers or their relationship to the public servants who they need to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Equally important is the behaviour of public servants themselves – particularly heads of government departments.

Yes, minister

At the outset it should be said that advisers have an important role to play in supporting their ministers and acting as a bridge between the minister and his or her department. It also needs to be acknowledged that ministerial offices often work under extreme pressure. This stems from the challenges of parliamentary politics and the difficulties of developing policy and implementing change under blinding glare of the 24-hour news cycle.

Much of course depends on the skills and capabilities of the advisers themselves. In my experience, the quality of political advisers tends to be highest when governments are newly elected and there is a relatively deep pool of political advisers, often with previous experience working in similar roles, eager to take on these roles.

As governments get older, it is often the case that the best advisers go on to do other things and the talent pool gets thinner and less experienced; sometimes with a poor understanding of the boundaries of their roles vis-a-vis both their ministers and the public service.

New governments often make a virtue of having fewer ministerial staff than their immediate predecessors. However, as governments age, the number of ministerial staff tends to grow. This increase in staff – sometimes very young and always enthusiastic – can create demands on departments without commensurate benefits for the minister.

While departmental secretaries cannot direct ministerial advisers, there is much that they can do in establishing a framework for appropriate working relationships with ministers and their offices.

Four steps to departmental harmony

At a minimum the framework should cover the following elements.

First, secretaries need to make it clear that advisers cannot give directions to departmental staff. The best way to do this is to identify a specific number of key senior officers to whom advisers can make requests on behalf of the minister. As an adjunct to this arrangement ministers should be told that the department will not stand behind any advice he or she receives that doesn’t come through the normal paper-flow channel.

The terrifying Malcolm Tucker from TV series The Thick Of It is the ultimate example of an unelected adviser wielding enormous political influence. BBC/The Thick Of It

Secondly, it is essential for secretaries to insist that their advice is to the minister only. While political advisers are at liberty to make comments to the minister about departmental advice, they should not to act as gate-keepers in determining what and when briefings go to the minister.

The best way to prevent this gate-keeping role is for the secretary to be aware of when key briefings leave the department and after a reasonable period for ministerial office scrutiny seek to have the briefing discussed with the minister.

Finally, under no circumstances should a secretary allow a ministerial adviser to request the department to re-write a recommendation from the department on a particular matter.

Of course there should be opportunities for discussion between the department and the minister’s office about the substance of advice. However, at the end of the day the minister is entitled to receive the department’s best advice and the department is obliged to provide it. If someone in the minister’s office disagrees with that advice, they are always able to write a covering note or say so directly to the minister.

It is also vital that departmental staff have an appreciation of the pressures of working in a ministerial office. Advice needs to be provided within time-lines that take into account the need for ministers to consult with their colleagues and reflect on media implications of the matter under consideration. Ministerial advisers also need receive early advice about issues which could be problematic to their minister.

The role of the secretary is pivotal. Departmental staff take their lead from the top. If the secretary establishes a clear modus operandi with a minister’s staff (and the minister when necessary), political advisers and public servants are much less likely to engage in the sorts of behaviours that cause difficulties for themselves, their department and the minister.

Give and take

This framework is standard fare for the way most secretaries relate to their ministers and their staff. But like all human relationships it’s one which needs to be worked on continually.

At its core is a simple point; both advisers and public servants need to understand that each have different but complementary roles to play. In framing their advice public servants should have the ability and confidence to use advisers to gain a broader understanding of the issues concerning the minister; and do so without compromising the integrity of that advice.

Advisers need to appreciate that ministerial decision-making can only benefit by being exposed to the different perspectives that public servants can bring to an issue. They should value the understanding public servants can bring to the subject matter at hand.

In the end, whatever is specified in codes of conduct, legislated or otherwise, the relationships between ministerial offices and departments will only work if secretaries and ministers make clear the behaviour they expect from their staff.

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