By Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Adam Fennessy PSM
Under the Westminster system of responsible government in Victoria, Ministers are responsible for the administration of their portfolios. They are accountable to the Victorian Parliament and ultimately to the people of Victoria.
Departmental Secretaries play a key role in supporting our Westminster system of responsible government by providing to Ministers full, frank, impartial and timely advice on their department and its administrative offices. Their advice helps Ministers be accountable to the Parliament and electorate on matters related to their portfolios.
Secretaries operate in a complex and often urgent work environment. They must have the experience and judgement to keep their Minister appropriately informed of the actions and outcomes in their portfolio.
In an earlier article for IBAC Insights, I described the role of the Victorian Public Sector Commission in Victoria's integrity system.
My role as Victorian Public Sector Commissioner is to advocate for an apolitical and professional public sector, and the Public Administration Act 2004 allows me to issue guidance to Secretaries and senior officers of the Victorian Public Service (VPS).
The chair of the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, the Hon. Jennifer Coate AO, made a recommendation in her final report that I examine the Inquiry's evidence and give guidance across the public service as to the obligations on heads of departments and senior public office holders to inform and advise Ministers.
I recently published Informing and advising Ministers: guidance to Secretaries about their responsibilities, acquitting this recommendation. It provides high-level, principles-based guidance for Secretaries of Victorian Government departments, and senior executives who exercise the delegated authority of Secretaries, on the obligations and responsibilities they have when informing and advising Ministers.
The guidance encourages Secretaries to brief proactively Ministers on significant matters. Secretaries are encouraged to use their judgement and experience to determine a matter’s significance based on its impact on the community or on the implementation of a government program or service, its sensitivity, any public interest there may be in the matter, and any associated risks.
It advises that best practice is to establish agreed briefing processes, for example, addressing the format and frequency of briefings or level of detail of information preferred in briefings, and it highlights the importance of formally documenting advice.
One of the key principles I share in the guidance is the importance of established and well-developed trust between Ministers and their office. This is the foundation of an effective working relationship and assists at times when a Secretary may need to provide difficult advice or work closely with the Minister to manage urgent situations.
While this guidance is addressed to Secretaries, they also rely on their senior executive and staff giving them full, frank, impartial and timely advice on the operations of their department and agencies. For this reason, all Victorian public servants are encouraged to read the guidance.
Departments can also use it to inform or revise their departmental briefing practices that, in turn, may improve the advice Secretaries and senior executives give to Ministers.
You'll find Informing and advising Ministers: guidance to Secretaries about their responsibilities on the Victorian Public Sector Commission's website.