The ministerial sprint: how to manage several tasks


As in most ministerial spaces, in the lobby of Chris Hipkin’s office are framed copies of political cartoons he appeared in.

In a Jeff Bell cartoon, he sprints on a treadmill while reading a handful of bulky informational books; behind him, the Prime Minister is still urging him to go ahead.

The cartoon dates from when Covid-19 was added to its already heavy workload. He was already Minister of Education, Minister of State Services and House Leader. Any of them could be a full time role.

The Jeff Bell cartoon is reminiscent of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland claiming that:

“… it takes as long as you can run, to stay in one place. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to run at least twice as fast as that!”

I imagine being a government minister often feels like that. It is a miracle that any Member in any Parliament desires this role.

All ministers have difficult jobs, but the most senior ministers tend to have stupendous workloads and broad responsibilities. This is true of all New Zealand governments of any party.

Cabinet sizes and workloads

The New Zealand cabinet does not have a set number of ministers, but it is typically made up of around 20 ‘inside’ ministers (those who attend all meetings), plus a handful of ministers outside the New Zealand cabinet. cabinet (but within the Executive Council). These extras are a mix of junior ministers and MPs from coalition partners.

The current government has 28 in the executive (about a quarter of parliament).

This 28 includes 20 ministers inside the cabinet, four junior ministers outside the cabinet, two (Green Party) ministers outside the cabinet and two parliamentary assistant secretaries (think ministers-in-training).

It may seem like a lot of people but between these 28 they share 108 different jobs: 72 ministerial mandates, 34 associate mandates and five other roles (big posts like prime minister or head of the house).

How does the New Zealand firm compare to foreign firms?

British Prime Minister David Cameron shows US Secretary of State John Kerry the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. The PM’s chair is tilted for easy access.
Photo: [State Department photo/ Public Domain] by 17 USC § 101 and § 105

The Westminster Comparison

The UK Cabinet has a limit of only 23 members (more can join but are not paid extra for it). The Westminster Rules seem to pile up around tradition rather than logic, so there’s a good chance the size of the cabinet is based on the size of the Georgian room they meet in at ‘number 10’.

Twenty-three sounds incredibly effective until you realize that there are typically over 100 “junior ministers” with terms outside of cabinet in Westminster.

These subordinate ministers often head sizeable departments and include various secretaries of state, parliamentary under-secretaries of state, and private parliamentary secretaries.

Some UK cabinet ministers have as many as 11 or 12 ‘outside cabinet’ ministers who work under them and run the actual machinery.

So you could say that the UK has an executive of over 120 ministers. That’s more than four times the size of New Zealand – 120 is the size of the entire New Zealand Parliament of MPs. If our executive had 120 MPs, who would remain the opposition?

Add to this the degree of decentralization of the UK state (the parliaments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own cabinet) and the delivery of services such as education and social services is managed significantly at the board level.

The Red Queen's Race Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol

“… it takes all the running you can do to stay in one place.” If you want to go somewhere else, you have to run at least twice as fast as that! The Race of the Red Queen by John Tenniel
Photo: public domain, published in 1871. Author died in 1914.

Three tips for coping

Chris Hipkins sums up managing a heavy workload to three main things:

Time management, good teams and a clear role. First, time management.

“You need to be able to prioritize, ‘what are the things I need to do today, what are the things I need to do this week, and what are the things that can wait a little longer.” And you have to be able to. to mix that up. Sometimes things that didn’t seem so urgent a while ago can get to the top of the pile, ”Hipkins said.

Get three good teams

The teams of people who prevent a minister from falling off the hamster wheel are quite small. I neglected to ask how many were in Hipkins’ office as an example, but I’m guessing about 20 people are there to help him manage his four portfolios. These people fall into three different groups: administrative, political and seconded teams.

First, there are the administrative (non-political) staff who Hipkins says make it all happen.

“They manage the agenda, they make all the reservations, they circulate the paper, they mail the letters, they handle difficult phone calls, they keep the inbox under control (keeping in mind that when on a busy day, hundreds of messages can come in through a departmental inbox.) “

The second group in a ministerial office are the “political” staff, that is, those who are not expected to remain impartial and above the fray.

“These are the people who deal with the media, they deal with more political issues, making sure that we consult the other parties, consult the other ministers.”

These employees can also do things like write a speech or a press release.

The last group is made up of experts seconded from various ministries and departments. They are called private secretaries.

“They are here to act as a liaison between ministers and government agencies that report to ministers.”

Private secretaries are also apolitical and will not necessarily always sing from the same score as the executive. They’re there to say “you might think it’s a good idea, but we’ve tried it before and it failed”.

“Government departments are free and should in fact provide ministers with advice they don’t like from time to time. In fact, this is very important in a democratic system.”

Remember your place

Hipkins’ final tip for dealing with a crazy ministerial workload is to remember that you are a minister and not to get caught up in the day-to-day running of a ministry.

It probably helps if you have a heavy workload and don’t have the time to get too involved; but by the same logic, junior ministers with just one small department to guide could easily end up acting almost like a second CEO, which wouldn’t help anyone.

“I’m not here to make all the day-to-day decisions. I’m here to give direction: to make sure the people who are there to do this do what we expect them to do, to do Right. sure they are very clear on what we expect from them. But in a big portfolio like education you have thousands of schools and early childhood education providers, literally hundreds of thousands of people. every aspect of it every day, and I don’t think the public would expect me to.

“You have to be clear about the difference between governance and portfolio management. I am here to rule it, and a whole army of people are employed to manage the portfolio on a day-to-day basis. “

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