25 May 2011

State servants, Political Parties, and Elections : Guidance for the 2011 Election Period published last week by the State Services Commission includes Appendix 5 – “Guidance on the preparation of briefings for incoming Ministers”.  This prescribes the process each departmental chief executive must follow to ensure that Ministers, as soon as they take up office, are briefed on their portfolios.

Although the practice since the 1990s has been for Ministers to release briefings to the media, the guidance makes it clear that this should not be assumed.  After several election cycles up to 2005 agencies packaged their briefings for Ministers as a public relations publication.  This is no longer appropriate.  Briefings should be structured around Ministers’ needs and kept confidential to the Minister.  Where material is requested under the Official Information Act, Ministers, not agencies, should determine what is released. Nevertheless, the openness expectations of the OIA must shape the way that Ministers respond.

The incoming  New South Wales Government has adopted a more rigorous approach than appears intended by the wording of the New Zealand guidance. There, the Premier has directed that briefings for new Ministers are not to be released.  His approach is that briefings have the character of cabinet papers and must be restricted in the same way.  Media have commented that this runs counter to the Government Information (Public Access) Act.

Information prepared by New South Wales agencies in anticipation of an election  is collated into “blue books” which are provided to Ministers on appointment.  New Zealand had an equivalent “black book’’ process until 20 years ago when the terminology changed, and the information was compiled in a “BIM” – a briefing for the incoming Minister.