Advice for new Ministers

Once again this is a collaborative effort from talking to some former Ministers and former Ministerial staff – and current ones.

  1. Never fuck with DPMC. They know everything.
  2. Never fuck with the PMO. They talk to the PM up to ten times a day, and you probably talk once a week at best.
  3. Occasionally walk your own release around the gallery – don’t get totally aloof from the media.
  4. Don’t try and be the Dept CEO’s CEO. It is tempting to try and do everything, but that is not a good use of your time, and just annoys the department. You’re the , not the CEO.
  5. Accept your department will stuff up sometimes and make mistakes which you have to shoulder. You can’t be absolutely risk adverse for then nothing happens in your portfolios. The challenge is to make sure the same mistake never happens twice.
  6. Treat your staff well at all times – they are working almost as many hours as you. The Beehive is a cauldron of gossip and unhappy staff radiate discontent. Almost without exception the most politically successful Ministers have the happiest offices.
  7. Move your family to Wellington if you want to keep them. You will now be in Wellington four to five nights a week instead of two.
  8. Don’t neglect the electorate. Your electorate in theory likes having their local MP as a Minister – but not if it means they see less of you. What matters to them isn’t what bills you’ve had passed through the House – but have you remained accessible and helpful as a local MP.
  9. Be a political Minister not just a manager. You should have some some policy goals for your portfolios, and not just be there to implement the Department’s agenda.
  10. Early on ask Bill English if you can spend a couple of hours with him, learning how to manage a massive workload and your diary. Bill has the heaviest workload of any Minister yet he manages to make it home for dinner with his family four to five nights a week. Success is not working from 6 am to midnight six days a week. It is being effective with fewer hours.
  11. Don’t just talk to CEOS. Make sure 2nd and 3rd level managers can tell you what is really happening. Even ring them directly from time to time. Don’t let the CEO become your only source of information.
  12. Treat all with respect, including the newest lowliest MP. You will not be a Minister for ever and friends come and go but enemies accumulate.
  13. Don’t screw the crew. Also be aware that even if you just go out for dinner (because you’re hungry) with a staffer or journalist, then half of Wellington will be gossiping about it the next morning, and speculating on whether the relationship is more then professional.
  14. Meet stakeholders regularly, don’t become remote. Even if the meetings are little more than information sharing, portfolio stakeholders like to be able to access their Minister. A reputation for being hard to get into see can spread quickly.
  15. When the Minister of Finance in your first Budget bilateral tells you your departments are the most bloated, and your vote is personally jeopardising the Government’s fiscal plans – be aware he says that to every new Minister. But also be aware he will win, until you are a senior Minister
  16. Your staffing decisions are most critical. Generally do not make your backbench executive secretary your Senior Private Secretary (unless they are very experienced). Grab one of the old hands – they will keep you from being sacked for breaching the cabinet manual. There is a big difference between being a sole charge secretary and managing a ministerial office of 8 to 12 staff. Many Exeecutive Secretaries can and do make the transition – but not necessarily immediately. You can bring them in as a Ministerial Secretary and then once they have experience in a ministerial office, step up to being an SPS.
  17. A political advisor should be political. They should see pretty much every paper you see, and their job is partly to point out the potential political problems. They should also be someone who can talk to your departments with some authority on your behalf.
  18. It can be a good idea to ask your departments to provide a short (say two page) summary of every paper they send you. This helps you quickly see the important stuff. However this is not a substitute to reading the full documents also. Or at a minimum make sure your political advisor and/or SPS have read the full documents also and provided their own summary if necessary. They may have a different view to your department as to what is important.
  19. Don’t just accept as your portfolio secondees, the recommendation of the CEO. It is quite common to ask for the CEO to provide a list of several departmental staff who are interested in working in the Minister’s office, and make the decision yourself. Getting the right secondees in can be crucial to your effectiveness.
  20. Have a chat to the outgoing Minister and find out where the bodies are buried.

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