Yes Minister!


The barriers to citizens getting change in government thinking, let alone policy change, are formidable when ministers are surrounded by officials determined to have the minister see things the same way they see them.

The steps followed by officials to achieve this are not written down but they are as clear as day to anyone with experience dealing with government. Here is the unwritten modus operandi of government officials based on my experience:

  1. In the initial months after an election refuse, and then stall indefinitely, all requests to meet the minister from groups which will push the minister away from the policy direction favoured by officials – especially so if it’s a new minister. This gives time for the officials to “brief” the minister, repeatedly if need be, so the minister will “see things the way the officials see them”
  2. Stall on answering letters which are pushing for changes in policy direction. In the least this will help slow momentum for change and protect the minister from criticism in the short term because no response means nothing to criticise! Four months is not an uncommon wait in my experience and one case took over a year as officials mulled what they saw as a “thorny issue” they didn’t want the government to act on.
  3. Withhold letters from a “busy minister” till the officials’ response has been prepared and is ready for the minister to sign. We mere mortals often have the naïve belief the minister will actually read the letters we send in. They won’t unless it comes from a big business lobby or similar. Instead, letters are sent straight to officials to prepare answers which, months later, are duly presented to the minister ready to sign. I have experienced many times receiving responses from a minister where it is obvious the minister has signed off on a response without having actually read the letter which was sent. This is so common as to be little short of a scandal. More recently I have requested that in the minister’s response that they confirm they have actually read the letter I’ve sent.
  4. When responding to letters do not respond to specific questions such as those which point out inconsistencies in policy or political direction – simply trot out the official line. This helps steer the communication away from policy change to a restatement of the government’s PR pitch. It also means the writer will have to send another letter – stretching out the time for a respectful response by many months.
  5. Delay as long as you can responding to all OIA requests. The 20 working days in which the law requires a response is a joke. I don’t think I’ve ever had a response within two months to any OIA in recent years. Many months wait is the norm.
  6. When responding to an OIA request be as obtuse and unhelpful as possible short of actually lying (although don’t rule this out). For example when asking for information which is held in a database officials will typically scramble the database, then photocopy it so that its unsearchable, then turn it into a pdf before sending. I once made a request for data re state housing and received an indecipherable pile of useless information – just the way the officials, and the minister in this case, wanted it.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here – officials are resourceful in protecting their ministers and the policy directions the officials themselves favour. New policy direction takes time and effort for officials and there are few ministers who can withstand the relentless pressure from officials for the minister to “see things the way they see them”

In the current government I am aware of only one single government minister, David Parker, who is prepared to push back against “official advice” and find a better way forward.

For the others, including the Prime Minister, it’s a case of Yes Minister!

TDB Recommends



  1. Spot on, John.

    I gave up writing to ministers around 2005, when it became obvious to me that a set of standard responses were held in a computer system, and one was selected by a nameless bureaucrat to deflect the enquiry and be as arcane as possible whilst failing to answer the original points raised.

    I had dozen, literally dozens, of inane responses, many with exactly the same phrasing. And none addressed the points raised. After keeping them for many years as evidence of the level of stupidity that characterises government, I threw them all away a couple of years ago, recognising there are more important things to focus on.

    “You are free to write to ministers any time. We encourage you to do so we make the post free.”

    Yeah, right! You are free to write. But don’t expect a logical response based on sound data or meticulous research; expect a whole lot of bullshit intermingled with blatant propaganda. Indeed, expect responses that defy the laws of mathematics, chemistry and physics etc.

    This fake democracy with no accountability is rapidly approaching the crash-and-burn stage, as a consequence of institutionalised ineptitude, arse-covering, self-serving and corruption witin the civil service, and of course policies based on economic doctrines that are completely detached from reality.

    Coincidentally, I was thinking a few minutes before reading this item that the way forward for what is left of this country includes a reduction of senior bureaucrats salaries by 75%, and if they won’t accept such a cut they can go. We would actually be a lot better off without them.

  2. Timely reminder of the senior level “fifth columnists” that populate Govt. departments. Essentially representatives of capital, there to undermine, or at least slow things down to glacial pace.

    Hundreds of these bludgers should be made to reapply for their own jobs and sent packing, John Minto, Mike Treen, Martyn Bradbury and various tangata whenua and working class activists would make appropriate replacements!

    And it is not just senior right wingers either, WINZ/MSD case workers and branch level staff enjoy torturing vulnerable people too–the PSA should take some of the blame here, and start educating its members about why there is unemployment and inequality in society, and how to treat people at least in accordance with the Act rather than moralistic sadism.

  3. In response to your mention of yes minister.
    “There are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld.” DOD News briefing Feb 12th, 2002.

    “Apparently, the fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known, and therefore those who needed to advise and inform the Home Secretary perhaps felt that the information that he needed as to whether or not to inform the highest authority for the known information was not yet known and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not at this time known or needed.” Bernard Woolley. “Yes, Prime Minister.” “The Tangled Web.”

    “Official Secrets.”
    Well thinking back on what I said and what they said,
    and what I said you said,
    what they may say I said you said
    or what they may have thought I said,
    I thought you thought,
    well they may say I said I thought you said you thought …
    Well I think I said you said you thought you were above the law.
    Bernard Wooley.

    Yes Prime Minister.
    “Man Overboard.”
    Need to know everything?
    “So that means that you need to know things even when you don’t need to know them. You need to know them not because you need to know them but because you need to know whether or not you need to know. And if you don’t need to know you still need to know so that you know that was no need to know.” Bernard Woolley.

    Yes Minister.
    “The National Education Service.”
    A Departmental response to policy suggestions from Sir Humphrey Appleby: “I mean that they will give it the most serious and urgent consideration, but will insist on a thorough and rigorous examination of the proposals, allied to a detailed feasibility study and budget analysis before producing a consultative document for consideration by all interested bodies and seeking comments and recommendations to be incorporated in a brief for a series of working parties who will produce individual studies that will form the background for a more wide-ranging document considering whether or not the proposal should be taken forward to the next stage.”

    The Govt ministers came into the caucus to confer. The Minister of Education had a point of order; his plan for the Defence relocation was not on the agenda. The Prime Minister (Jim Hacker) had trouble explaining and denying the he was previously in favour.

    Sir Humphrey Appleby stepped in to help. He said “It is characteristic of committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them and that every member’s recollection differs violently from every other member’s recollection. Consequently we accept the convention that the official decisions were those and only those which are officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, from which it follows with an elegant inevitability that any decision officially reached will be officially recorded in the minutes and any decision not recorded in the minutes was not officially reached even if one or more members believe that they recollect it, so in this particular case if the decision had been officially reached it would have been officially recorded by the officials in the minutes. And (he said) it isn’t so it wasn’t.”
    The Man Overboard program of ‘Yes Prime Minister’.

    The Four Levels.
    Apropos of the four levels of pandemic seriousness invoked.
    With issues, the bureaucrats of “Yes Minister” fame explained to Jim Hacker:
    ‘Then we follow the 4 stage strategy: In stage 1 we say “Nothing is going to happen.”
    In stage 2 we say: “Something may be going to happen, but we should do nothing about it.”
    In stage 3 we say: “Maybe we should do something about it, but there is nothing we can do.”
    In stage 4 we say:”Maybe there was something we could have done but, its too late now.”’

    On another occasion Jim Hacker was concerned about the publication of the Henderson Report. Sir Humprey explained the well established government procedure for “suppressing – that is, not publishing – unwanted reports.”
    Jim Hacker made notes so he could discredit some of his idiotic research papers.
    Stage 1. The public interest. You hint at security considerations, unwelcome pressure on government, the need for waiting for the results of a wider survey, and otherwise the need to commission a wider survey.
    Stage 2. Discredit the evidence you are not publishing saying that important questions need answering, evidence is inconclusive, the figures are open to interpretation, there are contradictory findings, and some conclusions may be questioned.
    Stage 3. Undermine the recommendations saying that they are not really a basis for long-term decisions, not enough information for a decision, there is no reason for a policy rethink, and that it endorses current practice.
    Stage 4. With remaining doubts, then discredit the man who produced the report saying that he is harbouring a grudge, is a publicity seeker, he is trying to get a knighthood, he is trying to get a higher post, or a multinational consultancy.

  4. It certainly explains this government’s complete indifference to the housing crisis. Oh i know they occasionally sound concerned but what have they really done of worth? A big fat 0!

    It also explains that when the headlines refuse to go away the minimalist approach to make the headlines go away is deployed. Think, talk of RMA reform, years if not decades in the making, implementing and bedding in via the judicial system, asking really really nicely if the Reserve Bank will at least make it look like they fleetingly thought of housing before ignoring it, think Jacinda finally waking up to the fact investors are a plague of diseased rats, but after superficial musing, do nothing.

    Labour are EXACTLY the same as National in respect of leaving the growing housing mess just the way it’s always been. In fact they’ve simply doubled down on Nationals policies. Your how to guide on officialdom explains just why that is.

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