Launch of Policy Project frameworks

  • John Key
Prime Minister

It’s always a good sign when a service provider takes steps to upgrade their offering without some complaint or customer pressure to improve.

That’s what’s happened here – the policy community has decided to lift their game without being asked to.

I initially wondered why we needed the Policy Project – I was pretty happy with the service I was getting.

 But there is always room for continuous improvement and innovation.

I am delighted that my department took a leadership role in collaboration with policy leaders from other departments, to improve the quality of policy advice across government. 

I’m impressed with the Policy Project frameworks being launched today.

They provide great infrastructure for government departments to improve the business of providing advice.

I can see how they will help you to do your job better.

A few weeks ago I met with the Tier 2 Policy Leaders group – a network of deputy chief executives with policy responsibilities - that has championed the Policy Project and these frameworks.

I know that Bill English and Paula Bennett have done the same.

We all appreciated the opportunity to have a conversation with the senior policy community about current and future policy issues, and about what we expect from policy advisors.

The Better Public Services reforms are all about more joined up government and the Policy Project is an important catalyst.

Any good business thinks about the future – about maintaining and building capability to continuously improve its offering to customers.

In the business of providing advice that means investing in your key asset – people.

You need to be able to attract the best and brightest, to hold on to them, to develop and grow them, and to ensure a good crop of future leaders.

Succession planning is not only smart – it’s an essential business strategy.

Senior policy staff need to be preparing others to step into their shoes.

The Policy Skills Framework provides a foundation for building a strong group of skilled policy advisors.

It sets out what we need from policy staff - people who can work with and through others, have the skills to back up their advice with good evidence, and can translate ministerial ambition into real action on the ground.

Today I’m going to talk about why the advice that the public service offers matters for good governance.

I’m going to cover what makes the relationship between ministers and their advisors work well and why it’s important that departments invest in long term thinking.

One of the foundation stones of our democracy is a strong, politically neutral public service that helps the government achieve its objectives.

In an increasingly complex world, good advice matters more than ever for effective government.

New Zealand is fortunate in the calibre of people who are attracted into the public service.

They have helped successive administrations steer our country through difficult problems, seize opportunities and position us as a confident, outward looking, open and optimistic country.

We are making good progress in a world full of challenges.

I have always valued the free and frank advice I receive from my officials.

They point out the risks and pitfalls of the choices we face, in a constructive and helpful way. 

They are proactive problems solvers too – they come up with alternative approaches to help us achieve our goals.

I think in opposition it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to solve the problems that really matter.

Most choices involve trade-offs and there are seldom easy solutions.

To really understand those trade-offs, you need high quality advice.

Governing is about making choices because we can’t do everything that we want to do.

Great advice helps us cut through to what is most important.

Ministers of course, get advice from lots of people.

That’s as it should be in our open democracy.

The advice we get from officials is valuable because they work in partnership with us, while being independent from the politics.

That means they can give us an unvarnished view about how to best achieve our goals.

I want to say a few words about what makes the relationship between ministers and officials work well.

The foundation of that relationship is trust, confidence and mutual respect.

Officials build ministers’ trust and confidence by showing that they understand the government’s political priorities and are committed to helping us find the best way to achieve them.

Advisors need to know their subject – I want to hear from people who really understand and have thought about an area.

It takes a lot of confidence to be the only person in a room of ministers to raise a problem, or advise against the preferred option.

Ministers need to listen carefully and respectfully too.

In my experience, confident ministers value hard-hitting advice even if they may not act on it.

My ministers know that I expect them to behave in a professional way toward everyone they deal with, including officials who may be giving them, at times, unwelcome advice.

There is a strong public interest in ministers receiving this advice because it makes for better decisions.

It’s one of the strengths of our constitutional tradition of an independently appointed public service.

Officials should actively poke holes in things in the interests of getting a better decision.

When it comes to taking significant decisions, I expect departments to provide their free and frank advice in writing.

Written advice is fuller, allows for more nuance, and can better cover the complexities of the trade-offs we face.

It also allows ministers time for reflection and to work through a problem in stages with officials to come to better solutions.

I’m also comfortable with ministers proactively releasing more Cabinet papers, and the research and evidence that supports them, once decisions have been taken.

It really shouldn’t be a big story when ministers and officials disagree – that’s the system working.

Officials’ advice should avoid second-guessing the politics of the choices we face.

As Bill English has on occasion remarked, leave the politics to the politicians – that’s our job.

But I expect officials to understand the political context in which we are operating.

The policy project frameworks we are celebrating today have some great pointers on how officials can demonstrate political savvy while keeping out of the politics.

One of the things that becomes most scarce when you are in power is the time to think deeply.

There is no doubt that the pace at which we have to manage issues has sped up dramatically even in the time my government has been in office.

The social media revolution has upended the news business – information spreads almost instantaneously.

Events can escalate quickly during a relentless 24 hour media cycle, now super-charged by social media.

There are a lot of great things about these new ways of communicating – but there are considerable downsides too.

Those of you with teenage children will know that social media eats your attention span.

One commentator put it well recently when he said that while technology has made us more connected, it has also truncated our thinking time.

It puts a premium on an immediate response, on tasks and information, but not on reflection.

But sometimes when we reach for a quick fix solution, we close off better options.

Sometimes patience, or even constructive delay while we assess more enduring solutions is a better path.

One of the most valuable things that officials can do is filter out some of this noise and pressure, and help ministers focus on longer term considerations.

We need creative thinkers who will challenge us out of status quo thinking and encourage us to take risks in the interests of better long term outcomes.

Otherwise we may face what one commentator has called “the slow migration of discontent from the fringes to the centre.”

Popularism – advocating easy sounding but unworkable solutions like turning the clock back to an imagined golden age or blaming immigrants for all our problems – is not the answer.

Great advice from officials helps ministers balance the needs of today with longer term goals so we can govern better for future generations as well as today.

In 2013 we took an important step towards embedding this type of thinking in public service departments through the amendments we made to the State Sector Act, passed with the support of the Opposition.

A key change we made was to make stewardship a formal responsibility of public service chief executives.

Chief executives are now responsible to their minister for the stewardship of their department, defined as the active planning and management of medium and long term interests.

That includes their department’s ability to offer free and frank advice to successive governments.

It underlines the importance we attach to deep, robust, politically neutral advice.

To be able to fulfil this responsibility, public service chief executives will need to be able to advise their ministers on future risks and opportunities in their portfolio areas.

This will require them to invest an appropriate amount of policy, research and strategic resource in exploring options and solutions.

They will also need to be thinking about what priorities a future government may have.

This means that they will need to have a depth of knowledge about issues which might not be on their minister’s current agenda.

While I hold ministers to account for delivering the priorities of today, they also have a responsibility to ensure their departments are thinking about the challenges of tomorrow.

I expect ministers to engage constructively with their chief executives in making space for longer term thinking.

Ministers and CEs need to balance current priorities with the investment in research, analysis and the deep subject matter expertise and capability needed to provide robust advice about future risks and opportunities.

Being a policy official in a government department isn’t the same as working in a research institute or a think-tank, however. 

Sometimes it’s much more like a just-in-time service.

When ministers need advice, it can be at short notice because the terrain has shifted and we want to seize an opportunity or better manage a risk.

That’s when the investment in deep thinking needs to be paired with agility to spot the moment and make the most of it.

And robust and durable policy is often made through frequent conversations.

The best officials are skilled at testing and retesting direction with their minister.

In the language of the Policy Project’s new skills framework, they are adept at “gaining clarity from ministers and senior leaders on desired outcomes, scope and appetite for risk.”

As well as the deep thinkers, some of the best advisors are also strategic opportunists – they seize the moment through a well-timed conversation or a short piece of advice which points out a chance to shift the dial.

Great policy-making is a creative process – and it’s definitely something we get better at over time.

The best officials also help ministers ensure that issues don’t fall through the gaps between departments.

Many policy problems modern governments face are complex ones with no single cause. They don’t lend themselves to easy linear solutions.

Today’s ‘wicked’ problems are a challenge to our public management system which is set up to provide very clear lines of accountability from chief executive to minister.

Both departments and ministers can get too captured by the status quo, even when that status quo isn’t delivering.

For example, people don’t experience problems in their lives in the tidy compartments that we deliver public services in.

Often it’s not just one problem -  a child is not behaving well at school, the family is under financial stress because the rent is too high, and someone’s drinking more than is healthy for them as a way of coping.

We will fail these families if our public services continue to work in silos.

Our front line staff understand this – that’s why the drive to connect services up has come from the people who are delivering them.

We are trying out new ways of tackling the hardest challenges.

For example, the investment approach which the Welfare Working Group borrowed from ACC and applied to welfare spending, is now being widened out to other areas such social housing, justice and vulnerable children.

It helps address a difficult problem for governments.

Most governments want to prevent problems before they start – I’ve lost count of the briefings I’ve read on the benefits of early intervention.

But it’s very hard to actually move the system away from what it has always done – shifting the state from being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to the fence at the top.

The investment approach gives us a concrete way of measuring the benefits of intervening early to make the case for changing where we put public money.

It requires us to value the future in the decisions we take now – and we are now starting to roll this approach out across the social sector.

This kind of innovative thinking is an example of the sort of robust and durable advice that ministers need to shift the dial on some long standing problems.

I want advice that challenges us and encourages us to think laterally.

I’m confident that as the issues we face in government become more complex, the public service will up its game.

That’s why I think the tools the policy project has developed are so important.

Now let’s celebrate what you’ve achieved so far.

Congratulations on developing the infrastructure for continuously improving the business of policy advice.

I look forward to seeing the results.