Operating in a political system without operating politically

Kate Butler, Solicitor at Russell McVeagh, brings together some insights about political nous following a series of events hosted by IPANZ and the Australia New Zealand School of Government. 

Sir Robert Armstrong, former UK Cabinet Secretary, once wrote that the public service “has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly elected Government of the day”. 

While Sir Robert is undoubtedly correct, his assertion raises an important question; how should public servants, bound by the convention of political neutrality, effectively serve political governments? 

This question – of exercising political nous as a public servant – formed the subject of a series of events hosted by IPANZ and the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) titled Ministers and officials: getting the relationship right. Speakers at these events were Deb Te Kawa (independent consultant specialising in governance, public policy, and change management), Steven Sutton (Special Counsel in Russell McVeagh’s Government, Competition and Regulatory practice group), Paul James (Secretary for Internal Affairs), Tory Whanau (Mayor of Wellington), and Mike Munro (Director of Munro Church Communications).  

The series, with events targeted both at new professionals specifically, and more senior public servants, focused on navigating the relationship with ministers and their offices, developing political nous, and understanding the politics without getting involved in the politics.   

What is political nous? 

One analogy that was used was that political nous is about having the courage to walk through water without getting wet, but being smart enough to know that is impossible.  

Our speakers all agreed that political nous is the ability to understand the political environment that ministers operate in. When asked what ‘good’ political nous looks like, they reflected several key elements: 

  • Customer centricity and understanding your minister(s), including the roles they play outside service as a minister (e.g. party, electorate, community, family), and influences on their decision-making (their philosophies, and their trusted advisors). 
  • Working with others and leading with influence (not authority), as those with poor relationship management rarely succeed. 
  • Understanding your own brief and the context within which it sits. 
  • Understanding your role, including the boundaries of free and frank advice, and what is within and outside your scope of responsibility. 

Political nous for new professionals 

New professionals are often at the flax roots on policy advice, with limited access to ministers and the political sphere. Advice to those starting out in their careers is to be curious – immerse yourself in the world of the public service and politics, follow the debates and the genesis of policies, and familiarise yourself with resources like the Cabinet Manual, the Public Service Code of Conduct, and the Policy Project. After all, political nous is developed through a ‘political upbringing’, the result of exposure to political conversations and considerations.  

The changing political landscape and political nous  

One of the critical reflections from this series is that the political landscape is changing in several ways. The rise in social media has allowed politicians to be better connected to constituents and voters, the pace and urgency of decision-making has escalated, the number of ‘decision points’ has increased in the policy process, and politics is becoming increasingly volatile. Notably, social media’s ability to derail informed and reasoned dialogue impedes a minister’s ability to make decisions that are well understood by the constituency.  

This is where an understanding of political nous is integral to the effectiveness of the public service; public servants must be able to read and respond to the changing political environment in order to best serve their ministers.   

Our speakers reflected that the public service is perhaps not keeping pace with the changing political environment – in particular, policies, policy channels, and stakeholder engagement avenues are lagging, which makes it difficult for the public service to deliver with political nous.  

For new professionals, concern was expressed that an increasingly volatile political environment would act as a deterrent to those wishing to join the public service. The importance of sufficient support, especially when engaging with turbulent ministers’ offices (e.g. as private secretaries), should not be understated here.  

One speaker reflected that the intersection between free and frank advice and political nous is at the heart of the public service. However, audience feedback noted this may be being undermined by a new understanding of political nous that seeks to tell ministers only what they want to hear. Indeed, in a 2022 survey of public servants by IPANZ and BusinessDesk, only two-thirds of respondents believed free and frank advice could be given without worrying about the popularity of that advice within their organisation or the government. [Ed – for more information about this survey and its results, please see the article on page 3.] This was less likely to be the case for junior public servants.  

What are the lessons for public servants? 

The political landscape is evolving, and both senior and junior public servants must be able to adapt.  

For senior public servants, this could look like fresh consideration of the efficacy of policy channels and stakeholder engagement, to ensure they are fit for purpose and best serving ministers as key customers. Open dialogue with ministers around free and frank advice (what is coming to them, how they’d like to receive it, and clear expectations around policy consequences) will also be advantageous here.   

New professionals provided a series of ‘asks’ at their event, to assist in developing political nous. These include building consistent political nous into induction and professional development across government organisations, having insights passed on after meetings with ministers and senior leadership, and sitting in on ministerial meetings, where possible.  

Public servants operate in a unique environment, where they must navigate, respond to, and evolve with a political environment, all without participating in it. To use the terms of Rob Shepherd, quoted in Politics and the Civil Service – Is the Age of Neutrality Over?, how well political servants can be “political chameleons”, without becoming “political animals”, is the art of political nous.   

This article was published in the Public Sector Journal - Winter 2023, Issue 46.2.