This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
Good morning Minister? Congratulations, you are minister for the very important department of state which I run as Chief Executive. Have they fixed you up with all the accoutrements of office: the chauffeured limousine, your own car, state supplied accommodation ... ?
Do you like my new office? They refurbished it while we were out on the stump. Much better than the pokey thing in a back corner I had as an ordinary MP and a stunning view too. I’ve already transferred the personal things but the office looks a bit bare. They tell me parliamentary services will provide me with some paintings. Hope they are not too modern or challenging. My constituents won't like that.
Nor, if I may say so Minister, will the officials and lobbyists who troop through.
Well I am here. What next?
Have you read our ‘Briefing to the Incoming Minister’, which we finished after the election?
Bit long, and if I may say so, a bit ‘business as usual’. As the Prime Minister said during the election we are a progressive government leading New Zealand into the new world. Have you read our party’s Election Manifesto? What did you think of it?
Of course, we have, Minister. You know all about party manifestos.
What do you mean?
Manifestos are for getting elected. Nobody expects them to be implemented. Much of what is in them is not implementable, and in any case they have little to do with the issues that the government will be facing. The point of the ‘Briefing to the Incoming Minister’ is that it sets out the issues you will be dealing with, what you have to implement.
But so much looks boring.
It is Minister. Many would say that party manifestos are much the same – riddled with platitudes.
There is not much in the ‘Briefing’ for our voters.
You worry about voters during election campaigns. In Government you deal with lobby groups.
Does not sound much fun. It is not what I went into politics for. I want to get some things done.
I am afraid the reality is rather different, Minister.
So what am I to do?
The fact is the bureaucracy will run the country as best we can, Your job, Minister, is to assist us to do that.
How do I do that?
The department will prepare policy proposals to which you will agree. There will be some choices for you, but within the tight framework in which all policy occurs. We do not expect any fresh thinking or direction from ministers.
Then, when you have agreed, you will take the policy to cabinet and get them to agree to it. Once approval is given, you will tell us to implement it. If legislation is needed, you will introduce the bill and guide it through parliament making sure there are no substantial changes despite the lobbyists or the occasional fresh thinker.
Is that why we felt so impotent on select committees?
Absolutely. There is one other task for a minister. When things go wrong you are the public face of the department. Your job is to protect the department. We’ll give you the full support. Most importantly, you are to protect the senior officials of the department. We will, if necessary, sacrifice someone in the lower echelons,
But why protect those at the top? Surely sometimes you make mistakes.
Of course we make mistakes, Minister. And we do our best to correct them. But we are not to be penalised. After all the Senior Leadership Team is the department.
I thought you chose the Senior Leadership Team.
In which case, Minister, I am the department. You protect me and I protect you. Deal?
So when you talk about the department and its policies, we are really talking about you?
I suppose so.
You must know an awful lot about the things the department is doing?
Actually I don't. I and the Senior Leadership Team are managers. The professional expertise is in the lower echelons. We managers never have the time to master the technical issues. The department has vast cadres of administrators and clerical workers who have to be managed.
Is that why the briefings to ministers are so dreary? Really just about the problems the managers face, and hardly anything about the long-term strategic issues facing the areas for which the department is responsible? Cant we do something about that?
I suppose we could set up a forward-looking taskforce within the department. In case you are uneasy. Minister, I promise that it will be small and will not have much firepower; we’ll put a manager in charge of the professionals. I’ll tell you what. We’ll ask them to look at your manifesto.
If you do that, my colleagues in the cabinet will be so impressed. They’ll be envious – probably do it themselves. It will give the impression to everyone that we are a fresh, forward-looking government – even if it does not have any effect.
Well, Minister, you have a very good idea there. We’ll go about implementing it immediately. Would you like our communications section to prepare a press release? They are always looking for something to do.
Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.