Chapter Two: Building and Maintaining the Partnership
The elected Government operates most effectively with the strong and consistent support of the APS and Ministerial advisers. The Panel has consulted widely to develop practical ways to support this partnership in the contemporary context. The Panel’s consultations included former Prime Ministers, current and former Ministers, Ministerial staff, Secretaries and senior public servants.
Key themes from the Panel’s consultations are:
Trust and confidence are the essential elements of a productive partnership
A strong partnership is characterised by mutual trust and confidence.
Trust and confidence is built by proactive and responsive engagement between the APS and Ministerial offices, which is best achieved through regular informed discussions and interactions. Strong relationships require effort and communication. The APS should seek to establish good communication channels from the commencement of a Minister’s term and it is important that this effort is reciprocated, particularly by Ministerial advisers.
The Panel’s consultations consistently highlighted that early investment in the partnership established a solid footing and usually a better ongoing relationship. This also enables robust discussions when necessary.
Getting the details right, including in presentation and timing, demonstrates credibility and competence and is critical to building trust. Consultations identified issues such as delays in providing advice and not addressing policy matters in full or in a fit-for-purpose format as particularly corroding factors. These issues that diminish confidence in the overall capability of the APS.
"A Minister’s office works differently to the APS. It is important the APS carefully considers the substance of the advice it provides, of course, but consideration of how the advice will be used and the time in which it is needed must also be front of mind. Getting that right gives the advice real impact."
- Secretary, Panel Consultations, October 2020
The Panel’s consultations indicated the best partnerships also recognise the relationship between the APS and Ministers is not static. While investment in building trust and confidence in the early stages is critical, it is equally important to develop flexible approaches to maintain that trust and confidence in a changing environment.
Understanding the role of the other
An effective working relationship between Ministers and the APS is crucial to delivering outcomes for Australians. A mutual understanding and respect for each other’s different but complementary roles in the system creates an environment more conducive to effective policy development and implementation.
"A strong working relationship between the Department and the Minister’s office is critical to deliver effective policy. Policy development and implementation is much more challenging if that working relationship is weak."
- Deputy Secretary, Panel consultations, October 2020
Consultations confirmed that Ministerial roles and APS roles are, and should continue to be, distinct and different. A Minister is best supported when the APS and the Minister’s staff work well together, understand their different, but equally important functions, and undertake their complementary roles effectively.
The obvious interface points in the partnership are between the Minister and Ministerial advisers and APS Secretaries and Senior Executive Service (SES) officers in departments. Consultations indicated, however, it is beneficial when APS employees across all positions and agencies and all Ministerial staff understand both sides of the partnership and how their role fits in the framework. Tasks are completed more efficiently when there is a connection to the ‘why’.
"I really appreciate when the Department realises how busy the Minister and the office is and reacts accordingly. This shows they ‘get us’ and that gives me confidence."
- Ministerial adviser, Panel consultations, March 2021
An underutilised channel for promoting and sharing knowledge and understanding across the system is the Department Liaison Officer (DLO) role. DLOs are a critical conduit between Ministers’ offices and their agencies. The Panel’s consultations highlighted that a stronger emphasis on the value of these mutually beneficial positions is needed to encourage high-performing APS staff to take up these roles. Time as a DLO should be promoted as a development opportunity and desirable experience for future APS leaders.
The DLO role gives an APS employee direct insight into the workings of government and provides the Ministerial staff with an on-hand APS resource and direct line into the department. This unique cross-over point promotes a deeper understanding of both sides of the system. The APS must ensure DLOs are supported during and after the role and should also have a plan in place to utilise DLO learnings when individuals return to their agencies. The Panel’s paper, Principles for DLOs, at Appendix A, provides more detail on the role of DLOs and guidance for making practical and effective use of the unique position.
Consultations confirmed it would be beneficial to encourage more APS employees to work in Ministerial offices. This could be reciprocated with opportunities for Ministerial staff to work directly with APS employees on particular policy matters or special projects.
"APS staff working in a Minister’s office in almost any capacity should be viewed as a very valuable thing for everyone. On one hand it provides the individual with specialised experience and knowledge, which will support their own APS career and others by osmosis; and on the other hand, it supports the office to understand and more effectively leverage the expertise and support available from the APS."
- Secretary, Panel consultations, October 2020
Consultations also confirmed that all APS employees should be equipped with the skills, knowledge and tools to understand the breadth and pace of the work of a Minister’s office. Providing advice at the right time, in the right way, requires a good understanding of the Minister’s priorities, their responsibilities beyond the specifics of their portfolio and awareness of the rhythm of a Minister’s day, particularly when Parliament sits.
Contestability of advice
A core role of the APS is to provide advice to the Government of the day which is impartial, takes into account legal compliance, considers the integrity of government processes, outlines implementation and delivery risks and considers the impact of a policy on the Australian community.
Ministers receive advice from a variety of other sources, including Ministerial advisers. This is a strength of the Australian system of government, providing Ministers the benefit of a wide variety of views and advice to inform their decision-making.
"When I was a Minister I was constantly being offered advice from all over the place. This was important because it allowed me to consider a range of matters, including unintended consequences or the nuances of how I was actually going to get a Bill through the Parliament. Advice from the APS was always very helpful, particularly around facts and figures, but I wouldn’t have been doing my job properly if I didn’t consult widely."
- Former Minister, Panel Consultations, November 2020
APS advice must be well informed, high quality and well presented to adequately serve the Minister. APS advice also needs to understand the political context while remaining independent. Engaging early and often with the Minister’s office supports the delivery of high quality APS advice, however, consultations indicated that doing so effectively and appropriately is sometimes difficult and the system would benefit from further guidance.
The Panel’s papers, The Operating Environment of a Ministerial Office and Working with Ministers, at Appendix A provide support in this regard.
Investment in specialised training for Ministerial advisers and the APS
Consultations focussed on the APS having a more comprehensive understanding of the Parliamentary operating environment. There is an opportunity to provide cohesive guidance for working with Ministers to the APS at all levels.
Many Ministerial advisers come from outside government and may not have had exposure to public administration processes. Consultations revealed this variety of backgrounds and experience was useful for Minister. However, for Ministerial advisers to do their jobs well, they also need to understand the Parliamentary operating environment, as well as the role of APS.
Training on Parliamentary and public administration functions and processes would establish a consistent understanding of the system and the implications for decision-making.
Elevate and support Ministerial staff roles as a Profession
Consultations identified a lack of formalised support and professional development networks within the Parliamentary environment.
While Ministerial advisers receive support from their colleagues, and informal mentoring arrangements exist, consultations indicated a more formalised support framework could be beneficial. The Panel’s view is that further professionalisation of the role of Ministerial advisers will result in better support for Ministers and the Government of the day.
"Ministerial advisers’ careers have changed. In many ways it is a profession and should be treated as such. Ministerial staff should be afforded the same support as any other profession – proper inductions, more specialised training programs, development plans, ongoing support and career progression."
- Chief of Staff, Panel Consultations, July 2021
Consultations indicated the quality of the formalised training framework for Ministerial staff needs attention. The Department of Finance offers training, however, it is self-selected rather than specified for particular roles. During the course of the Panel’s work, the Department of Finance provided several briefings on their offerings, including on proposed new arrangements for training. Ministerial staff would benefit from an appropriate induction, professional development and management guidance, and increased human resources support.
In addition, consultations indicated Ministerial staff would welcome and benefit from having a clear mechanism or resource to answer general questions about the APS and Australian Government processes. To support this, the Panel has asked the APSC to consider developing a dedicated website to house relevant resources.
Managing transitions in the partnership
While the key roles in the partnership are unlikely to change, the people occupying those roles of course do. A change of Government, Minister, their staff (particularly Chief of Staff or Ministerial adviser) or Secretary each trigger a ‘transition’ in the partnership.
Consultations confirmed these transitions present a valuable opportunity to strengthen the APS and Ministerial partnership and could be better utilised. A well-managed transition will instil trust and confidence, which sets the tone for the remainder of the relationship, makes challenges easier to manage and ensures business continuity for critical institutions and services of government. An ill-managed transition can have lasting negative effects on the partnership, reducing its effectiveness and potentially having an impact on delivery and general public confidence.
While there are many instances of effectively managed transitions occurring with minimal disruption, the Panel heard that transition arrangements varied significantly across government and were not informed by any centralised guide or framework.
"The success or otherwise of a transition often relies on the individuals involved rather than an established and reliable systematic approach informed by best practice guidelines. This can leave the APS and the new Minister exposed."
- Deputy Secretary, Panel consultations, October 2020
The Panel’s consultations suggest an appetite exists for an overarching framework of transition arrangements across government. This establishes consistency for a Minister who may change portfolios, or move in and out of government during their career. A framework allows the APS to move quickly during times of transition, reduces the risk of misunderstandings and provides continuity for effective government.
Effective transitions and continued strong partnerships lead to effective delivery of priorities, and better results for the Government and the Australian community. The Panel’s paper, Ministerial Transitions, at Appendix A, provides guidance for the APS to successfully manage transitions.