The customer comes first

Being a public servant in parliament

with Andrew Horwood

This article was first published in the IPANZ Public Sector journal 41:4 on 20 November 2018.

Being a private secretary for a Minister has some unique demands and also some rewarding insights. Andrew Horwood gives an insider’s view of a job that takes you to the heart of the government.

Any successful business will tell you the same: if you’re not client focused, you won’t be in business for very long. The rationale for this is obvious — if you give customers what they want, they’ll keep buying your services. As well as having happy customers, you’ll have happy staff who are efficient and self-aware.

But what if you’re a policy advisor in the public service and your “client” is the Minister? How do you find out what the Minister wants and keep him or her happy? One way to better understand your client — particularly if you can’t regularly meet them face-to-face — is to work in their office as a private secretary.

From policy advice to private secretary

A private secretary is seconded from a public service department to a Minister’s office. The secretary’s role is to liaise between the two. When the Minister wants advice, speech notes, or anything else from the department, she or he gets it through the private secretary. When the department provides a report or wants to send a message to the Minister, the department does it through the private secretary. The private secretary will attend almost all the Minister’s meetings relevant to the portfolio.

For 18 months in 2016–17, I was Private Secretary, Commerce and Consumer Affairs, coming to the job after being a senior advisor at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. During my secondment, some unexpected things happened — John Key (not yet Sir John) resigned, Bill English (not yet Sir Simon William) reshuffled Cabinet, and the government changed after the 2017 general election. This meant I served under three Ministers of Commerce and Consumer Affairs: Paul Goldsmith, Jacqui Dean, and Kris Faafoi. Before this, I’d also acted as Private Secretary for Energy and Resources (Simon Bridges) and Associate Economic Development (Te Ururoa Flavell). In other words, I served five Ministers from three parties in three portfolios.

After many hours struggling to decipher their handwriting; sharing cars, planes, and beers; buying secret Santa gifts; going to one Minister’s house for a lemon, honey, and ginger between meetings; and, you know, doing the job of a private secretary, here’s what I learned.

Ministers are busy

Ministers are extremely driven people with bulging diaries, jam-packed with stakeholder meetings, caucus meetings, Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings, meetings with officials, ad-hoc meetings on issues of the day, party events, speaking engagements, time in the debating chamber, sod turnings, electorate work, travel to allow for all this, and goodness knows what else.

It’s not uncommon for a Minister’s diary to have wall-to-wall meetings from breakfast until late into the evening. They may have been awake for hours before a breakfast meeting if they had to fly to it. It can be a special treat for Ministers just to have a sit-down meal, to get the recommended hours of sleep, to re-caffeinate, and to properly read all the advice they receive.

In other words, departments are giving advice to very busy people. When giving advice, whether oral or written, a few principles apply. It must be:

  • no longer than necessary
  • in plain English
  • delivered with confidence
  • rational and fact-based, rather than based on intuition
  • politically neutral.

As one of my parliamentary colleagues put it: “Great advice can be missed because the adviser took too long to get to the greatness.” Ministers need to instantly know why they are being told something, and they need to have it set out in the most digestible form. When advising a Minister, you need to tell them what they need to know — you don’t need to show how much you know.

Andrew Horwood served for 18 months as a private secretary in parliament. Image source: D. Mueller

The public service isn’t the only source of advice

Some in the public sector treat the policy process like an art form, full of hallowed language and traditional procedures that revere an apolitical purity. That’s fine; that’s the job of a policy adviser. But when things get to the executive, it’s not that simple.

Unlike public servants, Ministers are elected every three years. They do, and should, worry about what voters will think. Elections are the ultimate check on parliament. So when making decisions, Ministers will consider not only departmental advice but also the views of the stakeholders they’ve met, the journalists who’ve interviewed and written about them, their coalition partners, and their colleagues within their parties. They also need to consider opportunity costs in a way most officials don’t. For example, if an initiative requires new funding, Ministers need to weigh it up against other uses for the money — something officials may know nothing about.

All of these extra influences soak up precious ministerial time. They reinforce the need for public service policy advice to be succinct, confident, well-written, and well-presented.

Every private secretary role is different because every ministerial office is different

If you’re considering a private secretary role, there are a few things you might want to think about. Private secretary roles vary depending on the Minister’s preferences, the context they’re operating in, the way the office is run and resourced, and the demands of the portfolio.

Ministers’ preferences vary dramatically. Some Ministers rely on their political advisers and political instincts more than others. Some Ministers like to consult with their colleagues before doing anything. Some particularly hate jargon: one Minister would (light-heartedly) berate officials for using words like “learnings”.

Similarly, a private secretary will be more effective if he or she can give the department a sense of the context that the Minister is operating in. The private secretary should be able to relay the conversations the Minister has had with stakeholders, the views of the political advisers, the murmurings of parliamentary colleagues, and anything else they can pick up that can help the department understand what its client is thinking and hearing.

Ministerial offices will be staffed depending on the Minister’s portfolio demands and their level of seniority. Role allocation and systems will differ between offices. To serve their client, a private secretary needs to quickly adopt the practices of the office and adapt if these change. It may be appropriate to relay office procedures to the department if this will help them provide better advice.

Every portfolio has different demands. For example, Commerce and Consumer Affairs involved dozens of Cabinet papers every year, reflecting the ministerial portfolio responsibilities for legislation, a broad suite of policy areas, and numerous board appointments. In contrast, Small Business entailed a demanding travel schedule covering all parts of the country, but had a comparatively small parliamentary workload. You need to understand these differences if you want to work in the area.

Trust is key

I always thought of the private secretary role as having two components. The “secretary” component is the administrative part of it. The “private” component is about being a dependable adviser and confidante for the Minister, the Minister’s advisers, and the department.

To be good at the private component, you need to be trusted: the Minister needs to know you have their back. This isn’t about managing political risks, it’s about the Minister being confident you’re doing your job properly, relaying their messages accurately, and scrutinising advice to make sure it’s fit-for-purpose.

A great job when done effectively

The private secretary has an important job in servicing the Minister as a client. But one of the best ways they can do this is to provide the department with the information it needs to be able to tailor its advice most effectively. That’s where the private secretary makes a real difference.

If you’re thinking about doing the job I can’t tell you whether you’ll enjoy it. I can tell you what to think about though, so you can make that decision for yourself. You need to consider the style of the Minister and their staff, the way the office is run, your rapport with the officials you’d work with, the nature of the portfolio, the opportunity cost of the hours you’ll work, and any other variables that determine the exact nature of the job you will do. You also need to consider whether your personality suits this kind of client servicing.

Finally, I want to thank the excellent officials I worked with while in parliament.

Since early 2018 Andrew (Andy) Horwood is a policy consultant with MartinJenkins. His clients value Andy’s canny, energetic focus on getting things done. With his proactive, pragmatic approach, he is able to see problems and priorities clearly, develop solutions that work, and build the collaborative relationships needed to make the solutions happen. Photo: MartinJenkins

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