The need for robust and strategic advice has never been greater. Chris Eichbaum explains why it’s crucial that briefings for incoming ministers aren’t treated as the policy equivalent of junk mail.
Across Wellington, the process of drafting briefings to incoming ministers (BIMs) will now be under way.
There is advice in the Cabinet Manual and from the Public Service Commission on the rationale for BIMs and what they should contain. But it has to be said the tenor (and one suspects it has not been updated for some time) is at variance with the promise of a ‘new’ public service July’s passage of the Public Service Act foreshadowed. That promise is one of more policy ‘vigour’ and of policy for the medium-term.
BIMs were formerly post-election briefing papers (PEBs). They were provided before the outcome of an election was known, although one could assume those drafting the advice were not insensitive to the likely outcome.
The point, however, is PEBs were an important element of the constitutional public service’s discharge of its duty to furnish an incoming Government with the best evidence-based advice in a free and frank manner scaffolded by whatever context or analysis might enable the Government and its ministers to make sense of the environment in which policy would be generated and implemented.
Moreover, PEBs often tended to shake off the restraints of the short-term or immediate such that the advice was not only robust but also strategic.
It would appear, however, that – unless the present situation changes (and it is my strong belief it should) – the successors to PEBs are now provided after the election. In the words of the Public Service Commission, draft BIMs “can be reviewed and adjusted once the outcome of a general election is known, taking into account the incoming Government’s priorities, including coalition or support agreements, and the incoming minister’s knowledge of the portfolio and their preferred communication”.
To which some might say this is well and good and responsiveness is a valued trait of the public service. But the other side of that coin is the need for responsible advice, and we know such advice is needed but sometimes not welcomed. Therein perhaps rests the superiority of the PEB.
Moreover, there is the question of how substantive or ‘meaty’ the document should be. The prevailing advice does now risk the appearance – notwithstanding the principles and values of the ‘new’ public service – that less is better. So we should tell the minister about ourselves and provide ‘information’ on major outstanding policy issues, current programmes and recommendations for draft legislation.
If you want to know what PEBs looked like, go online and have a search. They are documents of substance and depth. Have some of them been criticised for crossing the line from analysis to selective advocacy? Well, yes. But an astute minister and incoming Government should be able to apply an ideological ‘burp’ test.
The situation facing the next Government – whatever its complexion – is unprecedented. The challenges of navigating the economy and society out of the shoals of a once-in-a-century global pandemic and developing policies to realise a post-Covid economy are such that the need for robust and strategic advice that spans the short- and medium-term, has never been greater.
The election campaign has been replete with references to ‘plans’ and assertions that ‘ours is better than yours’. And to be fair there is some policy content residing within those plans. But equally it is not deep, it is not detailed, and it is premised in large part on much of the ‘policy work’ being done later.
It will be ministers as part of a collective government that will take those policy decisions. But they need to be informed decisions and BIMs are the right place to start.
The risk is BIMs will be viewed, both by those drafting them and those receiving them, as the policy equivalent of ‘junk mail’. We know where that kind of ‘mail’ ends up.
Our experience in recent months – whether the challenges have been in public health or in macro-economic management – suggests we are endowed with impressive capacity in our state sector institutions and the capacity for thought leadership. Let’s use it.