This agreement forms the basis for an evolving and ongoing relationship with established protocols and understandings for interactions between the minister and the secretary, and the respective roles of the ministerial officers, public servants and departmental liaison officers in these interactions.

This section of the guide provides an overview of issues that incoming ministerial officers may consider in developing and maintaining an effective working relationship between the department and the ministerial office.

2.1 Portfolio Information and Advice

A large portion of a ministerial officer’s time is taken with providing the minister with advice on the portfolio. The minister also receives advice from a number of other sources, including stakeholders and the general public. This information is in addition and supplementary to that of the departmental secretary and senior department staff.

When a ministerial officer commences, they should familiarise themselves with the briefings provided by the department. Secretaries provide incoming ministers with a comprehensive suite of briefings that may provide a useful point of reference for ministerial officers who are new to the portfolio.

The briefings for the minister may include:

  • an overview of the key programs, services, clients, stakeholders and agencies, including the operations of public entities within their portfolio
  • progress against the Government’s policy objectives in their portfolio
  • the status of key capital and infrastructure works
  • how the department will support the ministerial office. This includes the financial expenses for which the department is responsible and for which the minister’s office is responsible.

A more comprehensive outline of the type of information that may be contained in initial briefings from secretaries to incoming ministers is at appendix B. A new ministerial officer may request a copy of these initial briefings, which are held in the ministerial office.

Departmental briefings to ministers contain key information prepared by the department. Appendix C provides a list of terms and key definitions that are frequently found in public service briefings. Ministerial advisers need to comply with any briefing protocols between their minister’s office and the department.

The secretary is accountable for all departmental briefings and information that goes to the ministerial office. The department keeps records of all briefings, which are approved via specific authorising systems.

2.1.1 Relationships

Ministerial officers do not have any legal authority to direct public servants. All directions to departments and requests for information from the minister’s office come from the minister to the departmental secretary and all responses from the department are directed through the secretary to the minister, often coordinated by the department liaison officer.

In practice, the secretary may delegate some of his or her functions to senior public servants. Nevertheless, the secretary remains accountable for the department’s operations. A ministerial officer may, at the discretion of the secretary, have direct working relationships with specific senior departmental staff to allow day-to-day activities to take place effectively and efficiently. Ministerial officers need to be familiar with the established formal and informal protocols in order to maintain effective interaction. Issues incoming ministerial officers may wish to consider when establishing working relationships between departments and ministers’ offices include clarifying how the minister and the department will interact and the expectations of each party. Particular areas for focus include the key contact points in each office (for example, contacts for major policy areas, program areas, and the media unit); briefing processes and protocols; and arrangements for administrative, operational and information technology support for ministers’ offices.

Each minister will have preferences for how they and their ministerial officers work with secretaries and their departments. These methods of interaction need to be clearly understood by all parties to ensure effective relationships between departments and ministerial offices that support delivery of government priorities.

Key questions an incoming ministerial officer may wish to clarify in order to facilitate the relationship between the minister’s office and the department are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Key questions for new ministerial offices
Theme   Questions
Liaison What are the minister’s priorities and preferred style of working? How do the minister and the department interact?
What are the arrangements for regular meetings between the minister and the secretary (or delegated senior departmental staff)?
At which meetings between the minister and the secretary (and the secretary’s delegates) does the minister want ministerial officers present?
What kind of working relationships have been established between the secretary and the minister’s chief of staff, the minister’s chief media adviser and other senior ministerial officers?
Are there any parliamentary secretaries? What are their roles? What are their expectations of ministerial officers?
How do the secretary and the department support parliamentary secretaries in the minister’s portfolio or other closely related portfolios?
Delegations What legal delegations has the minister made to the secretary? Does this affect the responsibilities of the minister’s office?
To which members of the secretary’s senior leadership team has the secretary delegated key policy and advisory functions? Are the correct people in the department being contacted?
Communication What is the level of detail the ministerial office requires on particular issues within the portfolio?
What is the minister’s preferred briefing style from ministerial officers?
What are the protocols for communicating requests from the minister to the secretary for departmental advice or action?
Portfolio priorities What are the minister’s portfolio priorities?
What are the public entities within the portfolio and what are their priorities? Do they have statements of obligations?
Is there a status report on progress against priorities and issues to date?
Other What financial expenses are the department responsible for? What expenses are the minister’s office responsible for?
Systems and processes How do administrative processes between the ministerial office and the department work?
What are the systems of communication between the ministerial office and the department, and what role does the DLO have in these systems?