Politics, public policy and political advisors
14 Aug 2015|
Parliament House, Canberra

The plethora of commentary on parliamentarians’ entitlements has pointed to systemic failure (a lack of clear guidance and rules) as a more fundamental cause of the problem than simple venality and carelessness on the part of MPs and Senators.

Sadly, this isn’t the only systemic failure facing contemporary government. There are other, and significantly more serious, systemic constraints affecting the timeliness, quality and durability of government decisionmaking.

At one level, the inability of contemporary governments to gain policy traction in areas as diverse as naval shipbuilding, climate change, vertical fiscal imbalance, marriage equality and education and health policy—to name just a few—represents the triumph of politics over policy. Governments of all stripes appear to be victims of the 24/7 political cycle, where ‘gotcha’ and ‘spin’ fight it out for supremacy, reducing everything to a contest to dominate the ephemeral. Quite simply, there is no strategy.

The respected Australian journalist Paul Kelly, in his 2014 book Triumph and Demise, attributes this situation to the loss of any appetite for reform. And, in turn, the aversion to reform is attributed to the ‘three deficits’—the lack of vision, the lack of leadership and the lack of accountability. This is a point that I elaborate on in my commentary on life as a ministerial staffer, No, Minister.

Martin Callinan’s 12 August post ‘Support advisors to support policy’ recommends that we take a serious look at improving the policy delivery value of political staff. There’s merit in the suggestion, but the issue doesn’t end there. For the unfortunate fact is that ministerial staff are too few, too inexperienced and too lacking in domain knowledge to address the complexities of contemporary policy development and program delivery.

Ministers, politicians and political staffers are in the box seat when it comes to streamlining parliamentary procedures and Cabinet processes. Twenty-first century parliaments continue to operate in the same way as their 19th century predecessors: interminable and usually pointless ‘debates’ that do little more than rehearse party platforms; organisational and time management inefficiencies; confected ‘busy-ness’; and little policy impact by the parliament on the prerogatives (and wilfulness) of the executive. Were any business or corporation to operate like the parliament, it would go broke.

The solution to the policy deficit that has infected Australian politics in recent years lies in the quality of the relationship between the ministerial decisionmakers and their public service policy advisors. The role of the ministerial staff is to facilitate and nurture that relationship, not to gate-keep it, and even less to replace it.

Ministers need clear and cogent policy advice if they are to make sound decisions. When ministers are left to their own devices, or when the relationship between the mainstream public service departments and their Ministers is strained, poor decisions and ungovernable programs result. The ill-starred Home Insulation Program is a case in point.

Many of the readers of The Strategist are skilled policy analysts and advisors putting enormous energy into preparing the submissions and memoranda on which ministers and cabinet make their decisions. What the analysts and advisors need to understand, however, is that ministers are inundated with policy proposals and issues requiring decision.

The Minister for Defence, for instance, is on the receiving end of upwards of ten thousand submissions and items of correspondence each year. This is an intolerable workload. Streamlining the policy-advising process would be one of the best ways of assisting the minister to make better decisions more quickly.

At the heart of a good policy-advising process is the quality of the relationship between the minister and the department. And that’s the particular responsibility of the minister, the secretary and the minister’s chief of staff. They are the people best positioned to set the priorities, determine the minister’s information needs, and agree the timelines.

In most respects, the ability of the secretary and the chief of staff to manage the workflow and to monitor quality standards is the key to smooth and effective decisionmaking. It’s too easy for ministers—who are generally not domain experts—to be swamped by indigestible technical detail. Too often, critical matters for consideration are buried in annexes and attachments where only the most forensic of ministerial staff can find them.

This problem, however, is readily fixed. The departmental secretary is, by law, the minister’s principal policy advisor. Everyone needs to understand that, especially ministerial staff. The secretary runs the departmental agenda, and will usually delegate to the division heads the task of ensuring that the minister gets what the minister needs—clear and unambiguous advice in a digestible form.

But the secretary needs to run the ongoing dialogue with the decisionmaker. Ministers and secretaries must collaborate on the basis of trust in generating the policy outcomes that are the real business of government. As experienced ministers have said, secretaries need to understand the political environment in which policy is delivered. Ministers do the politics. Secretaries provide the advice. This is a critical partnership.

Secretaries, and the departments they run, are the indispensible factor that generates sound and successful government. The closer the secretary and the departmental leadership is to the minister, and the greater the confidence of the minister in the secretary, the better the minister’s decisions will be. The most important help ministers can get is from professional, smart and apolitical public servants.