In 1996, Pacific Rim Commonwealth countries shared experiences in managing complexity at the political-administrative interface. The ‘Purple Zone’ was conceptualized as the intersection of the prerogatives and accountabilities of elected parliamentarians (the ‘Blue Zone’) and the responsibilities and behaviours expected of an apolitical public service (the ‘Red Zone’).

Politicians and public servants alike are the champions of change. But they have different roles, imperatives, and time horizons. There are bound to be different expectations, tensions, and interactive issues. How are differences sorted to build effective working relationships for leading change in government? What perspectives and approaches are needed to achieve common goals?

The political-administrative interface needs to be massaged continuously for best results. Public service renewal and reform depend upon a whole-of-government approach that cultivates the right equilibrium of roles, responsibilities, and capacities in the interface. Collaborative leadership ensures strategic alignment between government and the society it serves.

Former Australian Minister Kevin Andrews said in 2006: “It is only through working together in this way that we will be successful in our efforts to support democratic outcomes and deliver high quality, seamless services to our citizens.” It is a high-risk game, and there are principles at stake.

Ministers are responsible for diverse portfolios of organizations attached to their ministries. Accountabilities are complex, involving ministers, boards, chief executives, the head of government, and the cabinet secretary. They are all in it together. Success depends upon clear roles and expectations, agreed objectives and reporting of results, open and honest dialogue, and no surprises.

The Commonwealth does politically-sensitive development work at the centre of government:

• Cabinet/Permanent Secretary transitional retreats and teambuilding workshops;
• Consultations with ministers and heads of public service on needs and priorities;
• Policy advice to central institutions on governance and reform;
• Technical cooperation projects that place experts in central institutions;
• Leadership development programs for heads of central institutions; and
• Functional communities and networks that enable south-south cooperation.

Comparative advantage as a political membership organization allows the Commonwealth to address the sensitivities of reforming the political-administrative interface in genuine partnership with members. In turn, it collaborates with the international community to steer capacity development. The case of Sierra Leone shows how ministers and senior public servants leveraged good will and built trust to agree upon a ten-point declaration of cooperation in support of the President’s ‘Agenda for Change’.