The "Demand side" – Helping Ministers to be intelligent customers of policy services

A recent IPANZ/Productivity Commission round table concluded that public servants should be more courageous in their advice to ministers and more leadership was required. Sally Washington, Australia NZ School of Government (ANZSOG) Executive Director Aotearoa, unpicks the dimensions of great relationships between ministers and their departments. IPANZ and ANZSOG intend future collaboration to explore issues at the political–administrative interface.

Improving the quality of policy advice is on the agenda of many organisations and jurisdictions. Aotearoa’s Policy Project and the United Kingdom’s Head of the Policy Profession unit are well established agents for building policy capability. But most jurisdictions have focused on the “supply side” of the good policy equation. Few, if any, have done any complementary work on the “demand side” of the ledger – on ministers and how they can get the best policy advice and support improvements in public service policy capability. 

Good government decision making depends on great relationships between ministers and their departments. Often ministers come into the role thinking they need to have all the answers, when in fact, they really need to have the right questions. Confident ministers invite free and frank advice and are open to challenge. Great ministers are skilled at getting the most out of policy services. So how do they do that, and how might officials work with them to that end? 

The policy pre-nup 

The start of any relationship is a good time to set the ground rules – think of it as a policy pre-nup. Key dimensions of effective policy pre-nups include: 

• an agreed policy programme
• ground rules for commissioning advice
• an operating model for engaging with policy advisors
• processes to ensure advice is high quality.

    The first dance – it takes two to tango 

    Like any new relationship, you need to establish trust. The first opportunity to do this is through early discussion with new ministers. Chief of staff" to John Key, Wayne Eagleson, put it this way: “Put yourself in their shoes – understand the politics, even though it is their job to manage the politics.”

    There are conventions around the first dance. A Brief to the Incoming Minister (BIM) is an opportunity for the department to show that it understands what the new government wants to achieve.

    What about the other dance partner? What can ministers do to establish good relationships with their departments? Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison saw it this way: “It is ministers who provide policy leadership and direction [while the public service should] get on and deliver the government’s agenda.” New Zealand ministers are traditionally more open to ideas from the public service. Agendas defined by manifestos are not always clear or detailed. Ministers would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore advice from policy experts, especially their own officials. Officials also hold institutional knowledge on previous decisions and their success (or failure). If done well, the long-term insights briefings might create additional space for fresh ideas.

    Define the programme – get with the programme

    No government starts with a clean slate. There will be legacy items and ongoing business in an incoming government’s
    workload. The role of officials is to help ministers develop and implement their agenda. But that doesn’t mean they can’t
    have influence over that agenda. Tools exist to help ministers articulate their strategic priorities to departments, like letters of strategic intent. Some ministers are especially open to debate on policy direction. Bill English, as Minister of Finance, held regular “chew” sessions with officials – they were opportunities to discuss broad policy challenges before formally commissioning advice on how to deal with them. Back in the 1990s, Premier House sessions involved discussions between ministers and senior officials. This seemed to catalyse a shared understanding of priorities.

    Adjusting the programme – good commissioning is key

    Defining a policy programme is not a set-and-forget task. Things change, as COVID-19 has taught us. Even in less
    fraught times, problems arise that require adjustments to the policy programme. Ministers and officials need to agree on priorities. Acting on opportunities for innovation requires less impactful programmes to be dropped. Ministers and officials need to agree processes for reprioritisation and de-prioritisation. That means setting ground rules for new initiatives and for dumping old ones. Good commissioning is crucial, with clarity on what is being asked for and who should be involved. Messages can get muddled in translation from ministers to people developing advice. To help with commissioning, conversation prompts were developed as part of a Policy Project management tool called Start Right. Something similar could be developed to guide upstream conversations between ministers and officials. Alarmingly, but understandably, ministers sometimes come into the role not knowing how to commission advice from officials. And that’s not the only area where they might be flying blind.

    Do ministers need training?

    In the UK, the Institute for Government (IFG) provides training for ministers and shadow ministers. In Australia, the McKinnon Institute’s Advanced Political Leadership course prepares members of parliament for future ministerial roles. In Aotearoa, there is less support. The Cabinet Office provides a basic handbook for new ministers, and central agencies provide briefings. Seasoned ministers sometimes act as mentors to junior colleagues. Anecdotally, formal training is often shunned by politicians, who don’t want to admit they need help (especially in front of their colleagues). The IFG’s Ministers Reflect series includes interviews of ex-ministers on what they wished they’d known before taking office. The IFG concludes: “Given they are responsible for serious matters which affect everyday life, helping ministers properly prepare for their jobs would clearly be to the benefit of us all.” The same could be said in Aotearoa.

    Bridges or barriers – ministerial offices and advisors

    Ministers get bespoke support through their private office. The choice of who is in the minister’s office, how they relate to departmental officials, and how they articulate an “operating model” is crucial. The public services commissioner issued a code of conduct specifically for ministerial office staff. Whoever is in the minister’s office, whether in political or policy roles, they need to work together to support the minister to maintain good relationships with departments. As the “eyes and ears of the minister”, ministerial office staff" need to ensure the minister knows what’s going on in their departments and that departments have early warning about the minister’s thinking or future demands for advice. This includes substantive insights from meetings with stakeholders and other ministers to more administrative issues like the minister’s preferences about how advice is presented and who’s in the room for discussions.

    Rules of engagement – agree on an operating model

    It is important to get the operating model right – setting ground rules up-front helps. For example, some ministers are readers, others prefer oral briefings, and some love visual aids. Similarly, some ministers prefer to only have senior officials in the discussion; others want to hear from the person who prepared the advice. A former colleague of the UK Cabinet Secretary the late Sir Jeremy Heywood noted: “Heywood would always involve the person actually doing the work. Generous, yes, but also more effective.” When people further down the food chain are involved in discussions with the minister, the minister gets the real oil and officials may get a great development experience.

    It’s all about trust

    Confident ministers generally have an appetite for free and frank advice. Chris Hipkins set that tone when he called for more “hard-hitting advice”, saying “Ministers aren’t mushrooms, they shouldn’t be kept in the dark … Even if I reject the advice I’m given, I think I’d make a better decision for being properly informed.” Senior o"icials and ministerial o"ice sta" can help create a safe place for this to occur. As the inaugural Head of the Policy Profession said at an IPANZ event: “Trust creates the space for free and frank advice. Where the relationship between ministers and advisors is high trust and respectful, there is and always has been room for candid and challenging views to be aired.”

    Be an intelligent customer of advice – learn to recognise quality

    As the customer of policy advice, ministers should be able to question that advice. Policy decisions are rightly the domain of politicians, but they can help improve the quality of those decisions by:
    • encouraging free and frank advice (“tell me what I need to hear, not what you think I want to hear”)
    • allowing space in budgets for policy stewardship – to build future considerations into current advice and to invest in future capability
    • being skilled at interrogating advice. 

      Providing ministers with a simple policy test or a detailed checklist (see box below) might help. Questions from the “demand side” (ministers) should mirror agreed “supply side” standards that departments have set themselves.


      Like any relationship, if both sides have a common understanding about overall priorities, and some ground rules about how they interact, then it is easier to have “courageous conversations”. In the case of ministers and their o"icials, that means better decisions for the public they serve.

      Published in the Public Sector Journal 45, July 2022.