State service heads face much the same challenge as journalists – getting through to Ardern’s Ministers is a struggle

Andrea Vance, writing at Stuff, has taken the Ardern government to task for its media “management,” how ministers evade questions, how they deflect interviews and questions all, of course, in the name of the PM’s much-vaunted transparency.

Well, it seems she has stumbled on to something bigger than her focus on journalists struggling to get information.  From our inquiries we have found that heads of departments, ministries and agencies are facing something of the same challenge.

Firstly, ministers are said to be keeping permanent heads at a distance. Some find it hard to secure scheduled appointments.

In the good old days, the permanent head of each department saw his or her minister before Monday Cabinet meetings – and frequently in between.

Now there is a layer of “advisers” between them.

One department chief told us that his agency’s representative in a ministerial office solemnly reported that what the department might send up to the minister by way of advice might not necessarily be the same advice as what is put in front of the minister.

In reality, this means that the ministerial advisers are shaping information to suit what they think their minister wanted to see or here. Nothing like a free exchange of ideas, good, bad or indifferent.

There are exceptions.  Outstanding ministers are said to include Grant Robertson, who has a close, direct engagement with Treasury, Andrew Little across his portfolios and Damien O’Connor in trade.

Our sources didn’t mention the PM among the exceptions.

One key departmental head of a senior, strategic department gets 30 minutes with the minister each week but frequently (we are told) has no idea of whether the advice has been heard and taken on board, let alone understood.

The adviser system can work – but only if a department raises Cain and forces an issue.

Witness MFAT’s struggle to persuade the PM and foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta to change tack on China and warn New Zealanders of how Beijing has changed utterly under Xi Jinping.

Then there is the scrap over Five Eyes.  After much digging, we have learned that the PM dislikes public mention of it as “Five eyes intelligence sharing”.  Best keep it quiet and away from the electorate.  Perhaps it needs a new name – the “Fab Five?”

Ironically, this week’s FBI-led global hit on international crime, including NZ, came under the rubric of information and intelligence exchanges provided by Five Eyes. Just don’t mention the war.

For many departments and agencies, this is a worrying time for there is an appreciation they are dealing – by and large – with inexperienced ministers, some of whom are suspicious of the public service and much more inclined to their own advisers, whom they appointed, of course.

3 thoughts on “State service heads face much the same challenge as journalists – getting through to Ardern’s Ministers is a struggle

  1. Ardern and her Ministers clearly understand that strategic ignorance and the manufacture of non-knowledge are important tools of governance. In capable hands “ignorance can serve as a productive asset, helping individuals and institutions to command resources, deny liability in the aftermath of crises, and to assert expertise in the face of unpredictable outcomes.” (Linsy Mcgoey, University of Sussex, British Journal of Sociology 9/2012). As Jacinda has always maintained, “we have a plan”, no matter how random and bizarre government policies and actions may appear to the casual observer. Ignorance rules in Aotearoa today.

    Liked by 2 people

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