Expert says political nous is a must-have skill for public servants

Posted on 10 Nov 2023

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, SmartyGrants

2048px Parliament House at dusk Canberra ACT

Government grantmakers are often heard discussing – or more likely whispering – how to work with their political masters, whether it’s the minister or the mayor. Yet there is often little guidance about how to do it right, especially for those lower down the food chain.

Often, public servants believe that being “politically neutral” means being uninterested in the political sphere.

But one of the region’s top thinkers when it comes to public service leadership, Sally Washington, believes much more thought needs to go into the relationships between ministers and the officials working with them.

As executive director of the Aotearoa New Zealand branch of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Ms Washington knows a thing or two about the machinery of government.

Among her many postings, Ms Washington led the New Zealand Policy Project, aimed at boosting the policy capability of the nation through the NZ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. She has worked for the OECD and with officials in several other countries.

Ms Washington believes that without a good understanding of politics, public servants risk providing misguided policy advice that fails to account for political pressures and influences.

Watch the full keynote above
Sally Washington
Sally Washington

In a recent keynote address to the non-partisan think tank the McGuinness Institute, in Wellington, New Zealand, Ms Washington argued that a better understanding of the relations between politicians and the public service would improve government decisions.

She said that demonstrating political nous means being able to:

  • navigate complexity. Try to understand the political ecosystem in its complexity, including the channels of influence (who’s saying what and why) and the unwritten signals (hone those political antennae).
  • hit the target. Identify the right time and right place for approaching decision-makers and communicating ideas, and be aware of the no-go zones (there’s no point in flogging dead horses or presenting ideas when the decision-maker is distracted by a crisis or other pressures).
  • respect other sources of advice. Decision-makers are exposed to many sources of advice, so try to articulate those different perspectives and seek alignment. Attempt to bring in the perspectives of less-heard voices, such as First Nations populations.
  • build relationship capital. Continue to develop a relationship of trust and confidence, and strengthen and invest in future interactions (influence is cumulative). The ultimate indicator of trust and confidence is being invited to offer advice.
  • know the rules. Be across the rules, obligations, advice and guidelines provided – like the code of conduct and the cabinet manual – as guardrails for behaviour and the ongoing relationship.
  • have courageous conversations. Be bold and proactive in giving advice.
Gossip secrets
Ms Washington warns that not all operators have real political nous.

Ms Washington also called out the characters who lack true political nous:

  • the show-off: seeking the decision-maker’s attention for misplaced or self-motivated incentives
  • the strident advocate: taking on the role of lobbyist rather than presenting evidence-based ideas
  • the rogue: failing to follow due process
  • the blabber-mouth: not respecting the minister’s privacy and being detrimentally over-transparent
  • the sycophant: overtly seeking out the minister’s good books.

How political is political?

In a separate ANZOG summary about achieving “political neutrality”, published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, NZ public policy expert Dr Rose Cole warns that politicisation in the public service happens when the distance between public servants and political masters narrows and public servants become too involved in the government’s electoral fortunes.

Public servants are supposed to demonstrate “neutral competence”, a combination of technical competence and political neutrality, while being committed to the current government. Dr Cole’s paper marks out three categories of politicisation:

  • formal politicisation: where merit-based criteria in recruitment and reward are replaced by political criteria
  • functional politicisation: when public servants become responsive to politicians rather than maintaining neutrality
  • administrative politicisation: where political advisors intervene in the relationship between the minister and the public service, obstructing the delivery of free and frank advice.

What should the role of adviser be anyway?

Political handbook
Tap on the cover to access the introduction to the edition.

Another recent contribution to the examination of the relationships between ministers and their staff is the Handbook on Ministerial and Political Advisers, edited by Richard Shaw.

The book tackles the common view that “ministerial advisers are usually up to their necks in questionable activities of one sort or another.”

It points out that advisers can “help ministers manage towering workloads, expand policy conversations, and – in their de facto capacity as court jesters – ask awkward questions.”

For grantmakers, the book provides insights into the ministerial–advisory landscape, and a nuanced view of this “very particular kind of political animal”.

More information

Sally Washington in Apolitical | McGuiness Institute summary

From ANZOG: Summary of the Handbook on Ministerial and Political Advisers | Maintaining neutrality while working in the minister’s office

Sign-up to our newsletter