Research from the Griffith School of Government and International Relations was presented in Wellington, New Zealand, earlier this month as part of the State Services Commission and ANZSOG New Zealand series of applied learning events.

The event brought together industry practitioners and researchers to critically reflect on the experiences of Australian and New Zealand Governments to better understand the role ministers play in policy-making.

Associate Professor Anne Tiernan said questions had been raised about the standard, performance, and efficiency of policy advice and its alignment with ministers’ priorities.

“Much of the debate about the policy skills and capacities of the public service has focused on the supply side of policy advice,” Associate Professor Tiernan said.

“What needs to be examined is the demand side for policy advice — whether there is effective demand from ministers for policy advice from the public service.

“We need to consider how relations between ministers and their official advisers might have changed and the external and internal forces that might account for what many believe to have been a profound shift in the dynamic.”

Associate Professor Tiernan said there were several possible explanations for this shift.

“The loss of staff, corporate knowledge and expertise that has resulted from the NPM reforms has impacted on the role of the public service in policy analysis and advice,” she said.

“Australia has also seen an increase in ‘career politicians’ who are less content to follow public service advice and direction; who are more assertive about the policy ideas and directions they want to pursue; and who are often more ideologically differentiated and more partisan.”

Associate Professor Tiernan said ministers’ attitudes towards the public service often vary quite markedly.

“Not all ministers accept the public service is a partner in policy-making. Some are more directive, believing policy is the province of elected officials, and particularly, the Cabinet,” she said.

“Policy advisors need to ensure their focus is on people and relationships; ministerial backgrounds and experience; interests, strengths and preferences; the stories that engage and interest them; and fundamentally, on building trust.”