Comment

Dunne: Ministers need training and performance reviews

There is a surprising assumption that being a minister is a job that virtually anyone who has been in Parliament for barely five minutes, and sometimes less, can do, says former minister Peter Dunne.

In the wake of the allegations against suspended Labour Minister Meka Whaitiri the spotlight has been turned on the level of training and support provided to new Ministers when they first take up their responsibilities.

Under our system of government, Ministers occupy some of the most important positions in the land; they oversee substantial budgets and personnel in their departments and ministries; and, their actions have a direct bearing on the day to day lives of many New Zealanders.

They are assumed to be able to "hit the deck running" on day one, and, apart from briefings from their departmental officials on current issues within their new portfolio, and the Cabinet Office on their constitutional roles, they receive virtually no advice about "how" to be a Minister.

Our system of representative Parliamentary government makes the process of their appointment inevitably haphazard, which makes the training issue that much more pointed.

To become a Minister, one first has to be a Member of Parliament (or, if not, become one within 28 days of appointment as a Minister). Then, one has to be a member of the party or group of parties commanding a majority in the House of Representatives and so forming the government. Typically, that means nearly half of the members of the governing parties will become Ministers.

Their selection process is equally haphazard - they may be elected by their party colleagues (as is the case with the Labour Party's Cabinet selections) or appointed directly by the party leader (as is the case in every other party). Whatever the method of their selection, Ministers serve at the pleasure of the Governor-General (although in practical terms, this means the pleasure of the Prime Minister) and can be dismissed as summarily as they are appointed.

Against that backdrop it is hardly surprising that there will from time to time be problems with Ministers struggling to get to grips with the scope and practice of their jobs, let alone the policy issues for which they are responsible.

Frequently, MPs who have been stars in Opposition or on the Government back bench, fail to adjust to becoming Ministers, and perform miserably.

At that point, the bureaucratic agencies like the Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services are available to help, but it usually requires a request from the Minister's office first, and because it is a reactive process, although thorough and professional, it is invariably too late.

The process of oversight, such as it is, of Ministerial performance is normally left to the politicians themselves. Frequently, the Prime Minister's office has a roving staff member who can act as a "firefighter" in offices requiring assistance, but it is more a form of crisis management, than helping a Minister do his or her job better.

Other than the political assessment of colleagues, which may be influenced by a range of factors that are not always systemic or free of bias, there is no objective process for determining who is performing well as a Minister, and who is not.

Frequently, MPs who have been stars in Opposition or on the Government back bench, fail to adjust to becoming Ministers, and perform miserably. Equally, there are those who were previously seen as pedestrian performers who take to Ministerial office like the proverbial duck to water. Given the diverse background and experiences of MPs this is hardly surprising.

What is surprising, yet so often demonstrated, is the assumption that being a Minister is a job that virtually anyone who has been in Parliament for barely five minutes, and sometimes less, can do, regardless of their ability and experience, and whether they have ever served in a government before. 

Given the significance of the role of a Minister, this casual approach to performance is difficult to justify, although it is a common feature of Westminster-type systems of government.   

As a Minister in the National/United coalition government in 1996, I proposed that a system of performance agreements for Ministers be developed, in terms of both their success or otherwise in delivering the government's particular policy priorities in their portfolios, and the overall way they did their job.

Recent events might suggest that whatever the arrangements, they are not working.

I argued that such a process would give the Prime Minister of the day a firmer and more dispassionate way of determining Ministerial success or failure, and also potentially picking up early on areas of weakness where more support might be required.

That suggestion did not go anywhere at the time, although a variation of it was later employed by Sir John Key as Prime Minister. He required Ministers to submit to him at the end of the year a detailed statement of their plans and intentions for the following year. The expectation was that the statement would be prepared by the Minister directly, rather than staff or departmental officials. There would then be a one-on-one discussion on the submission between the Prime Minister and the Minister, including a review of the Minister's performance over the previous year, and a decision agreed about activity in the year ahead. And the Prime Minister held the Minister to account for its delivery.

It is not known what performance review arrangements, if any, are currently in place, but, with a new Government still in its first year of office, with only five of its twenty-eight Minsters having previous Ministerial experience, recent events might suggest that whatever the arrangements, they are not working.

While our system of representative government means the appointment of Ministers will always remain somewhat byzantine, we need stronger procedures in place for monitoring Ministerial performance and more proactive systems for helping Ministers to function effectively in those important roles. 

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