Saturday, January 20, 2007

Minsterial infallibility

A colleague of mine is having a frustrating time at the moment as she wrestles with the implementation a decision her Minister has recently, and very publicly, made. Such is the life of officials but it made me think about one of the fundamentals of working with government: Ministerial infallibility.

Ministerial infalliability requires that once Ministers have taken a decision, that decision must be (a) implemented (b) successful and (c) popular.

Anyone of these requirements can cause officials headaches. In my colleague's situation, the challenge is (a) and (b). Popular is why it was approved regardless of the fact that the original advice to the Minister recommended against it and it's an election year and Ministers need to open, announce, expand etc so mere logistical challenges must be overcome. As is often the case in this kind of situation, the difficult parts of the program have been shifted well past the election so that any problems do not wind up in the press on the eve of the poll.

In my experience, smart Ministers ask for advice and mostly take it. It's risky to make a decision that goes against the advice not least of all because it exposes the Minister to far greater criticism. Better to not ask for advice if you think you'll not like it - at least then you can then spin that officials never advised you...

Occassionally, officials mistakenly believe that there advice must be followed and that reluctant Ministers simply haven't understood well enough. That can be the case, however most of the politicans that I've worked for have pretty extensive networks and are much closer to the electorate than is recognised. Desk research and journal subscriptions can't provide the insight of endless bowling club BBQs, rotary meetings and the experience of sitting in at the local community law centre.

The progam in question will be successful, eventually - it's been rushed which is the problem and will not produce the desired impact in the time available. If there's a change in Minister, odds are that it'll be quietly cut after 6 months to be rebadged and relaunched as the new Minister's program. If the same Minister survives the election and Cabinet, officials will find a way to reframe the project just before it fails and, in doing so, remind the Minister of their original insight.


Chris said...

Smart ministers know which advice to take and which advice to reject. Michael Cullen was advised against interest free student loans on the grounds that it would lead to a massive increase in borrowing. He disagreed and he was right.

In my experience, the best Ministers are the ones who collect all the relevant information (from officials and constituents) and then make their own decision. The Ministers who sit down with officials in 'strategy sessions' and get a real grasp on an issue make the best decisions. The Ministers who reject official advice without reading it just because they think it would be unpopular make the worst decisions.

Some officals I have worked with get frustrated at the idea that Ministers may have their own opinions and ideas - but that is at the very heart of democracy. They are the ones who face the verdict via the ballot box.

As an interesting aside, I once had an official ring me to complain about changes I had made to some ministerial correspondence. "You can't just change an official letter" was pretty much their argument. When I pulled out the letter I found that it wasn't me that changed it, it was the Minister concerned - in their own handwriting! Needless to say the official in question had the good grace to drop their argument...

crasster said...

I gotta say, Chris is right. Ministers are not policy advisers. They're politicians. Ministers are entitled to set their own agenda - sometimes to the frustration of their officials. Officials want Ministers to be like themselves. Ironically, the last thing Ministers want is for officials to be like them (i.e. political). You have to accept the different roles in our political system. The Minister is there to be a politician. To consider issues in a political light. It's the officials role to provide the best advice possible and to attempt to implement the Minister's policy direction. Tis the way of our democracy. Sometimes, a good policy loses out to craven political interests. But what's the alternative? Fiji shows the ugly side of bureaucrats deciding they know better than the elected officials.

backin15 said...

I think the issue that annoys public servants is the balance between issues that are decided on their merits and those that are determined, as you say, by "craven political interests".

Chris's example about the student loan scheme is a great one. I thought the policy was a mistake (yes, having advocated it for several years previously) but I defended it - little swot - on kiwiblog on the basis that I didn't imagine people would start behaviing entirely differently from how they had in the preceeding 10+ years... turns out Cullen was right (still a crap policy but).