Quote of the week
“I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Policy, of course, is the engine by which government works. Policy helps a government meet its goals and informs decision-making. Historically, policy advice to Ministers came from experts within departments. It laboriously moved up the decision tree, signed-off by all gatekeepers in the hierarchy, including the deputy head. It was that signature that told the Minister, and those in the Minister’s office, that it was Sanctioned Departmental Policy Advice.
There was a time when this chain of decision-making rarely broke. Ministers and their offices were largely content to let the process unfold knowing that they would get public servants’ considered advice in the fullness of time.
Well, no longer. The universality of access granted by technology, and the pressures Ministers’ offices face to move information out ever faster mean that Minister’s offices often believe there just isn’t enough time to wait for the chain to provide that Sanctioned Departmental Policy Advice or response. They need it now, and they have the tools to reach into the department to get it.
At one level, this can work. There is no reason why information can’t be sent up to a Minister’s office from an analyst deep in the bowels of the department. The problems occur when that information is construed as advice.
Ministers’ offices and departmental officials need to understand the difference. Information in this context is knowledge, data, statistics, learning. It tells the MO how many widgets were produced in 2006, what the trends demonstrate, what the latest data is…
Advice occurs when there is analysis and a recommendation: what this latest information means is that the government could or should …
And that advice should come from one source: the deputy minister. Advice offers the best considerations of the public service regarding a course of action. Ministers and governments act (or don’t, of course) on those considerations … and are accountable to the public for it. In that respect, the deputy head is accountable to the Minister for the quality of the advice given.
And when the two get confused, and Ministers offices either ignorantly or willfully use information as advice, the consequences can be significant for all.
So if you get a call from the Minister’s office, make sure the ground rules are clear, and that you limit yourself to providing good, solid information.