At 36,000 feet, no one hears ministers scream


Imagine your minister getting on the red-eye flight from Perth. Leaves Perth at 0.40 am and arrives in, say, Melbourne five hours later. Think about this person and imagine their circumstances and condition.

At this time of night, all ministers will have put in a 16 hour day. Most will be tired. Most will be stressed. Some will be poorly fed. A rare few will be watered too well.

Once settled into the flight, some 36,000 feet in the air, some ministers order a red. Most then out of a sense of duty will open their briefcase and start to read a pile of briefs that have been screaming out for attention.

What happens next: the good decisions that are made or not made, the screams that ministers make, depends on the quality of your brief and the clarity of the content it contains.

Your audience, the minister, wants your brief to make life easy for them. And you want your minister to read rather than set aside your brief. Briefing a minister is no easy business, but it’s a craft that can be polished and if you stick to five simple rules then you’ll produce an effective and influential document.

First, clear writing requires clear thinking. Don’t just start writing. Set yourself, your minister and your document up for success by talking through ideas, issues and processes.

Second, what is the purpose? What question must you answer in your brief? What problem must be solved? Or, what opportunity must be grasped? This last point is especially important. The work of policy is not just catastrophe piled on top of disaster; opportunities come the way of ministers and their departments and should be grasped with both hands.

Third, separate your presentation of issues from background material. The issues are the analysis of factors that are currently in play and includes compelling reasons for a particular course of action.

Fourth, ruthlessly discard junk. Junk is the text and ideas that are associated but not relevant to your purpose. Junk is excessive and irrelevant technical detail. The fact that you are Australia’s leading expert on a particular topic is no reason to include everything you know in a brief.

Finally, recommendations for action are only meaningful if they are aligned to the purpose. Each separate action requires a separate recommendation.

Five simple rules.

By applying them consistently you protect your minister and the department both. Good decisions are made in a timely way.

And you ensure that no sound of screaming, rage and frustration is broadcast from a plane set high against a starry Western Australian night.

The Mandarin is an online journal dedicated to covering public policy and administration in a thoughtful, measured and rigorous manner. For this alone, it deserves your support and receives from us an elephant stamp.

Chas Savage writes a column for The Mandarin. This article, on making life easy for ministers, was the first.

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