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:
- 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”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!