2 April 2013

Last week the Institute of Government (UK) published an interesting proposal to enhance official support for Ministers.  The suggestion is that the Australian model should be adopted at Westminster – appointing a private office incorporating both political and departmental ministerial staff, and led by a chief of staff. The Institute had reviewed practices in a range of jurisdictions before concluding that the Australia model was best to replicate.  There was no reference to New Zealand (possibly because both private secretaries and ministerial advisers are departmental employees and the chief of staff, in the main, is a political function in the Prime Minister’s office.)

“Supporting Ministers to lead: Rethinking the ministerial private office” proposes strengthening private offices, as the “life support machine” for Ministers. A chief of staff would help Ministers track policy implementation, speak on their behalf to their department and run the expanded Minister’s office.

The paper addresses Ministers’ concerns that they don’t have the resources to achieve what they want.  Ministers have called for more politically aligned support to work on their priorities and to ensure the department is clear about their expectations, and what the department must do to deliver on them.

The Institute’s recommendation is for Ministers to have “a clear and transparent right” to have appointed a small number of expert advisers outside of ordinary civil service recruitment processes and a chief of staff to lead them.

These expert advisers wouldn’t have to come from the civil service but they would be different from special advisers (SPADs who are directly appointed by Ministers). They would be experts in their policy field or in management, with accountability as civil servants and to their Minister. They would go through the civil service  assessment/merit based selection process but be jointly appointed by the Minister and the departmental head.

The chief of staff should be line managed by the departmental head. Their effectiveness will depend on having the trust of the departmental head, and the ability to speak convincingly on their Minister’s behalf with others.  The Institute recommends that the Minister has a significant involvement in the selection process, recognising the political aspects of the post that must be effectively managed. The outcome will be a larger ministerial office than at present, with seconded departmental employees serving as private secretaries, ministerial appointees serving as ministerial advisers ( SPADs) and appointed by the Minister, and private office advisers, appointed by the Department in consultation with the Minister.\