PM sets ground rules for ministers' treatment of public servants

John Key said that in return the government wants its "free and frank advice" from public servants in written form.

Prime Minister John Key has laid down the law about the way ministers and public servants should interact, saying ministers may not always like the advice they receive but they must listen to it carefully, respectfully and professionally.

In a speech to public sector leaders at Parliament, Key said that in return the government wants its "free and frank advice" from public servants in written form, and expects officials to be politically aware but not politically active.

Launching a major project intended to lift the quality and consistency of public policy-making, known as The Policy Project, Mr Key said "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" but it was important to have well-qualified public servants able to do that.

"Ministers need to listen too," he said. "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."

On significant decisions, "I expect departments to provide their free and frank advice in writing," Mr Key said, in a nod to an environment created by the threat of disclosure under the Official Information Act being seen to stifle officials' willingness to give controversial advice in writing, which has given rise to critical reports from the Office of the Ombudsman.

"Written advice is fuller, allows for more nuance, and can better cover the complexities of the trade-offs we face," Mr Key said. "It also allows ministers time for reflection and to work through a problem in stages with officials to come to better solutions," Mr Key said. "It really shouldn't be a big story when ministers and officials disagree – that's the system working."

However, while the policy project framework cites the need for public servants to be "politically savvy," advice from officials "should avoid second-guessing the politics of the choices we face. That's our job."


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