28 November 2011

When polling results on general election night indicate that parties are likely to coalesce speedily into an arrangement that will have the confidence of Parliament, central agency chief executives can breathe easily. The intricacies of caretaker government are avoided and the complications of providing information for coalition negotiations are minimised. There was certainty by midnight on Saturday that the Prime Minister would again lead the Government in the next Parliament. However, until again being sworn into office his status is as Prime Minister of the Caretaker Government.

Much of the State Services Commission 2011 election guidance for State servants has served its purpose. The focus now must be on the Appendix 5 to the Guidance. This appendix guides Departments on the preparation of their Briefing for Incoming Ministers. It sets out how chief executives fulfill the Cabinet Manual requirement to brief their Minister as soon as the Minister takes up office, on the Department and the portfolio.

The guidance emphasises that the written briefing is only part of the information provided to a Minister. It is to be made available when the Minister is sworn into office. It should reflect the Minister’s awareness and experience of the portfolio, and take account of commitments made in the government formation process. It must be tailored to the Minister’s needs. The format specified by the State Services Commissioner is that briefings must be short, setting out key organisational and policy information, identifying key decisions facing the Minister over the following few months, and detailing entities for which the Minister is responsible and to which appointments must be made.

Guidance about BIMs released in conjunction with each of the last five elections has been very similar. This takes account of the MMP environment and the need for departmental advice to be shaped by the needs of the Minister. The process is quite different from the “Black Book” previously maintained by departments and which was “frozen” on election night to reinforce the neutrality of the advice prepared by officials.

The current guidance makes it clear that BIMs are not prepared for the media, despite the pattern that many Departments have adopted, although inevitably there will be Official Information Act requests to disclose BIMs. A directive in earlier editions of the guidance, that BIMs were not to be commercially printed has been moderated in the current of the guidance. The guidance now paradoxically indicates that BIMs must be prepared in the normal format of advice to the Minister and “do not need to be commercially printed”. However, it seems unlikely that any Department is commercially printing their “normal departmental advice” to Ministers!