All staffed up

A good indicator of how well a new government goes in its early days is how quickly it gets its Ministerial staffing into place, how it goes about it, how the staffers are briefed and the operational guidelines they are given.

The Howard Government may have been very successful over much of its life but it got off to a very shaky start losing Ministers, sacking Departmental Secretaries and putting in quite a lot of inexperienced staffers whose main characteristic seemed to be a distrust of their departments. A blog colleague was not surprised when talking to a new Howard staffer to be told how busy and overwhelmed the staffer was. But he was stunned when the staffer said it was because he was snowed under by the Ministerial correspondence. The blog’s colleague asked whether the department wasn’t producing things quickly enough and the staffer replied: “I couldn’t trust them to do it, I’m doing it myself.”

The Abbott Government has also gotten off to a very rocky start and their Ministerial staff appointment process was slow beyond belief and seemed to be characterised less by establishing competence and more by ideological vetting and preparedness to accept central direction.

In Victoria much of the Baillieu and Napthine government problems seemed to stem from poor (with some very notable exceptions) staffing and distrust of the public service. Now, whoever wins the imminent Victorian election, there will probably be another major overhaul. If the Liberals are returned against the odds many staffers will wait around for a while but start looking for outside opportunities while their political experience is current. The inevitable Ministerial reshuffle and changes will also inevitably bring in more newbies.

But if Labor wins the election we know exactly what they will do, and what they will expect new staffers to do, thanks to an e-book which is the most comprehensive manual to Ministerial staffing the blog has yet seen. The book, Generals, Troops and Diplomats by Mark Madden, is available at The book started out as an induction program for advisors in the early 2000s and has been further developed from the author’s experience as a journalist, media adviser and senior adviser in Victoria and the Commonwealth – most recently with Simon Crean. While it is primarily directed towards Labor Governments the advice would be relevant to any government.

It canvasses the role of a Ministerial office within the context of Professor Moore’s ‘public value management’ concept; looks at the tensions between Ministerial offices and those of PMs and Premiers; advises on how to avoid simply being in office rather than implementing policy; working with departments, statutory authorities and agencies; and, goes into detail on that critical document in Ministerial offices – the Minister’s diary.

The book also discusses the building blocks for strategic success including: having clear expectations and a strategic political agenda; knowledge management; issues scanning and response; the importance of saying thanks to the public servants who support you; and, the importance of Ministerial correspondence and how you handle it!

There is sound advice on dealing with lobbyists including the need to avoid, if possible, the many drinks and functions they put on. There is a clarion call to why you are there: “every morning you need to remind yourself that you are one day closer to losing your job. So, if you want to get things done before that day comes, you have to help clear the path and make things happen.” There are also templates for strategic, policy and communication planning and an excellent section on community engagement, media and communications. This section’s flavour is illustrated by the comment that: “Media management and centralised control of messaging has been substituted for real communication. This is compounded by the fact that many media advisers are good at handling media on a day-to-day basis but don’t know much about the broader challenges of strategic communication.” It highlights the fact that departments churn out communication strategies but are often not so good at issues management and community engagement. Madden also reminds us that “the aim of every form of political communication is to persuade, convert and energise.” There are also excellent sections on speech writing and presentation; the adviser’s role in Opposition; how to avoid letting the media tail wag the dog; and how to develop and implement policy.

Because it is designed for Labor advisers some Liberals may be reluctant to read it. Moreover, Liberals often bring a degree of certainty to an area which ought to be characterised by constant doubt and questioning. But if Baillieu and Napthine advisers had learnt its lessons the election result may not have been in as much doubt as it currently is.

Meanwhile a PhD thesis by University of Canberra post-grad, Caroline Fisher, looks at the transition from journalist to parliamentary media adviser and back again. It can be found at The thesis is based on a qualitative study of individuals in the media and the media adviser business and the author’s own experience as an ABC journalist and Queensland Government adviser. It looks at ethics, trust, conflicts between journalistic and adviser values and practices, and builds on the work of others –particularly that of Rod Tiffen’s whose work is still the benchmark for research in the area. Tiffen, of course, in his 1989 book News and Power made the definitive comment about the relationship between media and media advisers when he called it a problem of ‘coterie communication’ in which the coterie operated in a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which they are “audience one minute, actors the next; targets of some messages, sources of others.”