How do non-partisan advisors in Ministers’ offices maintain political neutrality while immersed in a highly politicised environment? A paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration present new insights into the tensions that can emerge.
The paper examines political neutrality based on interviews with Private Secretaries (public servants) who have worked in New Zealand Ministers’ offices. Portfolio Private Secretaries have been non-partisan representatives of the public service since the 1930s. Political neutrality is a key requirement for these roles.
The research involved semi-structured interviews with 15 people who held the role of Private Secretary between 1997 and 2018.
There is a setting in the Minister’s office described as the purple zone. This is where politics (seen as a red zone) and administration (seen as a blue zone) merge when transforming political will into administrative action. These zones coalesce into a ‘purple zone’ where role separation is blurred and the energies of politics and administration blend creating tension.
In New Zealand and Australia, roles in the Minister’s office are predominantly partisan and usually end when the Minister’s tenure ceases. Political advisors may be appointed because of their commitment to the policy or political preferences of the Minister. They are not required to be politically neutral.
They provide support to Ministers by:
Private Secretaries are seconded to the Minister’s office from government departments. Their role is to liaise between the Minister’s office and the department as well as provide advisory and administrative support. Similar roles in other jurisdictions include Department Liaison Officers.
Private Secretaries are expected to have a range of skills including:
They must demonstrate ‘political nous’ – an astuteness in understanding and negotiating the political environment.
Coles states that politicisation occurs when:
The paper sets out three categories of politicisation:
Public servants are expected to embody ‘neutral competence’. They should be technically competent and politically neutral while carrying out their duties, fully committed to whichever government holds office.
All interview participants referred to the Private Secretary’s role as politically neutral and the expectation of impartial service of the government of the day. This required constant attention from Private Secretaries.
Significant energy and effort by Private Secretaries went into actively maintaining neutrality. The ability to self-manage the boundary of political neutrality was identified by respondents.
Participants described how they navigated between maintaining neutrality while meeting the Minister’s needs. Given Private Secretaries are the conduit between government departments and the Minister’s office, participants identified they also contributed to managing the risk of politicisation of departmental staff.
The interviews revealed the challenges and personal strategies used by Private Secretaries to maintain neutrality in an intense and sometimes unsupportive environment.
It is paradoxical that Private Secretaries maintain neutral and effective service to the Minister by practicing political skills. Upholding principles fundamental to public service while working in the Minister’s office involves significant effort and risk. It requires personal and (‘small p’) political strategies to manage the tensions inherent in the purple zone.
Maintaining neutrality in the Minister’s office – Rose Cole, Australian Journal of Public Administration, December 2020
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