Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Political Power (2) Cabinet Ministers

Cabinet ministers cannot do as much as they will have hoped. They have to get the government departments that support their portfolios to do things. That is not easy. The Chief Executives (CE) of Government departments are skilful operators. They have got to where they are by moving up through the ranks of the public service. They rise to the top by managing their careers to be in the right place at the right time. They know how to overcome opposition and manipulate the system to get their way. They know how to deal with people who oppose their plans.

When a new Cabinet Minister arrives, the CE will put all these finely-tuned skills into managing them and setting them on the right path. They will provide the Cabinet Minister with Briefing Notes that explain all the issues, describe the problems, and tells them what needs to be done. The CE knows far more about the situation than the minister, so it is hard for the him/her not to be co-opted to working for the goals and objectives of the government department. The new minister’s plans and dreams will be overwhelmed.

To get a proposal through cabinet, a minster has to get his department to prepare a cabinet paper. This a slow complicated process that the minister cannot do themselves. They have to get the staff of the government department that they are responsible for to prepare the paper on their behalf. Once a draft is prepared, it is circulated around all the other government departments that would be affected by the change. They will make changes and amendments to the paper. By the time that the cabinet paper is through the review process and finalised ready to present to the cabinet, it may have changed significantly from the original idea. All papers have to go to the Treasury, and they can kill an idea by saying there is no money.

The stated aim of the review process is to ensure the development of good policy. However, it can also be used to obstruct the “foolish ideas” of cabinet ministers. Government departments are very skilled in obstructing things that they do not want to do. They can let them lie around for so long that they die.

This explains why some new government fail to fulfil their election promises. To implement their manifestos, they need the support of the public service. If the leaders of the public service are not supportive, the plans of the politicians will go nowhere.

If the CE does not like the ideas of the cabinet, the minister will struggle to get it through. The CE will ensure that the opposition to the idea is organised to prevent the cabinet paper from going the distance.

Cabinet Ministers are new to their portfolios. They will usually know very little about their portfolio before they come to it. In contrast, the CE and senior staff of the department will have a detailed knowledge of the area. The cabinet minister will often be dependent on them for a detailed explanation of the issues.

The other power that the CE has in their arsenal is to give the cabinet lots of complicated detailed papers to read. This can often overwhelm them and shake their confidence in their own views.

Cabinet ministers often find themselves as servants of the public service, pushing their ideas, rather than the other way around.

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