26 Aug 2018

Anatomy of a minister's office: What happens in the Beehive?

From The House, 7:30 am on 26 August 2018

The Beehive is one building where lights being on late into the night doesn’t just mean the cleaners are in. The weirdly shaped building in downtown Wellington is the seat of government and never quite seems to rest. (The seat of Parliament is in the old grey one next door.)

The bees that fill its cells are a disparate bunch, and a whole lot less political than you might imagine, but more on that later.

The Executive Wing (official name) was built back in the seventies to house the Government’s Ministers, but it doesn’t. It’s just not big enough, and a lot of it is given over to things like a donut shaped banquet hall, a spacious entrance and spaces for tourists and school children.

So it’s not all ministers, and not all of the ministries.  The more senior ones are in the Beehive but some junior ministers have offices across in Bowen House (the rented office block across the road - a long walk but with great views).

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The round 'seat of government' and the square 'seat of parliament'.  The overflow building, Bowen House is half hidden behind the Beehive. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

In fact the Beehive is something of a physical pecking order (do Bees do that?). The cabinet room is on top, then the PM, and then, to some degree, the rank of a minister is reflected in how far up the building they are.

The Labour government haven’t properly reshuffled yet, so they may or may not follow this tendency; but apparently during the previous administration if you lost enough places in the cabinet rankings you were likely to shift offices as well, literally dropping down a floor or two.

Proximity to power had a physical manifestation as well as as a numerical one. MPs that were out of favour found themselves placed as far from the PM as practical, in the 'departure lounge' corridor.

The Beehive

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In the Beehive however, every minister has to get in a lift to meet the PM so there is little practical benefit to proximity, while there are advantages to being a little lower. The building gets smaller the higher it gets, and so do the odd wedge-shaped offices.

The House visited David Parker’s office to get an insight into how a minister’s office runs and who does what.

His office is a grand example because he has five separate portfolios (jobs), and a couple of Associate Ministers to help him (they have their own offices though), as well as being an Associate Minister himself (Finance).

He looks after two ministries, MBIE - which is huge - and Environment, and has staff inside others. He’s the shareholding minister of a large clutch of state-owned companies, and has other agencies and entities as well, including Crown Law and the Parliamentary Counsel Office.

Attorney-General David Parker

David Parker answering media questions in the 'tiles scrum' on his way to the chamber. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

As Attorney General he is also the person responsible for all the judges, and for telling the government if it’s planning to break the law. 

All told there are maybe nearly 6000 staff within his ambit, though other ministers are responsible for parts of the mega ministry, MBIE.  Basically, this is no small role.

So how many dozens of people were in his Beehive office to help him with all of that? Just fifteen.

No wonder they barely looked up from their screens as I was shown around. Just too damn much to do.

Ministers have two kinds of core staff. Most of Mr Parker’s staff (9) are kind of on loan. They are ‘departmental private secretaries’ - senior experts, seconded from a ministry to be in the minister’s office.

David Parker has two for his Environment role, two for Trade and Export Growth, two for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, one for Economic Development, one for Attorney-General, and one for Associate Finance.

Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment

Just one of the minister's ministries, though this one is large enough to include encompass roles that have other ministers, like Housing and Construction. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

These Departmental Private Secretaries are the conduit of information and advice in both directions. It’s a role of extraordinary influence and responsibility. They are youngish, work long hours, with a demanding workload.

David Parker described them as “really clever people”, quite a compliment from a MP regarded as no mental slouch.

“It’s important to the functioning of government that you have clever people in these roles, because it’s the bridge between the executive... and the government departments. They are people who work long hours, they are across the diversity of work that comes out of a government department. They understand it. They’ve got the personal relationships back with the government department to say ‘hey, where’s this at?’

"It’s a really practical system that works well.”

The crucial thing about these staff is that they are not political. They are part of the public service and bound by the ethical requirement to be neutral.

Also, they are not chosen by the minister as people he knows and trusts.  David Parker points out that before he took the role he didn’t know any of them, they kind of come with the job.

State Services Commission

The State Services Commission looks after all public service staff and has a strict code of neutrality for them. Former PM, Keith Holyoake stood outside the SSC for years, but it moved, he stayed and now he guards the Rugby Union building. Someone should give him a ball.  Photo: Nigel Roberts / teara.govt.nz

The other kind of staff in a minister’s office work for a different boss. They are employed by Ministerial Services - and have a different code of conduct. They are not required to be neutral, but have to be professional, which includes respecting the authority of government and the role of Parliament.

The reason for the difference is that these staff are not ‘subject experts’ that need to remain able to work for any political party, and offer neutral advice. They are there to be able to offer political advice on things like inter-party deals, communications, and tactics. Being neutral might neuter their usefulness.

They are chosen by a minister for their expertise and, says David Parker, “wisdom”. He called them master tacticians. Their jobs rely on the minister they work for and last only as long as he or she does.

Photo: 123RF

In David Parker’s office they are an ‘office manager’ (Deb Thornton, called a Senior Private Secretary) who is the lynchpin of it all. A press secretary, (the former senior political journalist and international chess master, Vernon Small); and two political advisors (because someone has to count the votes, do the deals, and shepherd legislation).  

And of course the office also has front desk and admin support people.

Everyone in the office is described as a Private Secretary. 

So for those people who think government ministers are people sitting in an office with a secretary, you are kind of right, but not very.