Why would anyone want to be a government minister?
It always interests me how often people characterise government ministers as out of touch, doing nothing and overpaid.
My experience, in and out of government, has been the opposite.
The vast majority of ministers work very hard, have virtually no time for their personal lives, are consumed by the job, are not in it for the money, and love the cut and thrust of the position (well, most of the time).
You will never convince people that ministers deserve their pay, and I’m not attempting to.
What I want to highlight is how hectic and pressured the life of a minister is, and why – when you get time with them – you should use it wisely and be properly prepared.
As a super quick summary, ministers manage parliamentary business (read thousands of pages of briefing notes and cabinet submissions, and make hundreds of decisions), they liaise with party colleagues and departments within their portfolios, take feedback from the general public, respond to letters, and deliver on their party’s agenda.
This is all done against a backdrop of being in the public spotlight plus having to deal with a 24-hour news cycle and an Opposition and media who demand perfection and are always on the lookout for a mistake.
Hence their ministerial office is like a hospital triage desk.
The most immediate issues and those deemed of highest importance are dealt with first and each issue is prioritised according to its immediacy, complexity and potential to become a problem.
Issues come into the office by phone, email, letter, briefing note and from meetings.
Ministerial staff face a constant juggling act, managing all these issues and remaining focused on effectively using their minister’s time. They need to apply their brain and time to the most critical/important issue at any moment and eventually yours will (with luck, good timing and a powerful argument) be that issue of focus.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t get unreasonably annoyed about the challenge of securing ministerial meetings if they:
- can’t get a meeting immediately
- can’t get a meeting with the minister and instead get a meeting with the Chief of Staff or a policy advisor
- can’t get a response to their letter or issue within a day or two
- don’t get more than a 30-minute meeting; or
- find their meeting is rescheduled at the last minute.
It’s important not to take these situations personally. It is just that time needs to be found to focus on each issue in a busy, intense world that is unpredictable and that can take time. Keep in mind also that in the political world, sometimes priorities change and positions changes quickly or at the last minute.
When you do get a chance to meet with a minister use your time wisely and be prepared, concise and clear on why you are talking to them and what you would like them to consider.
They receive so many messages, on so many issues every day, that to cut through you have to stand out from the crowd.
The key is to provide them with simple key messages (not more than three) about what you want and why. These messages convey the outcome you are seeking and why.
Be upfront, polite, respectful and clear. Don’t waste time with long background discussions, a detailed history of events or hints about what decision you hope a minister will make. Ministers and their staff don’t have time for subtlety, beating around the bush, or plain vagueness.
Advisors and agencies will be tasked with providing advice and consolidating all the background to make it easy for the minister to consider.
Keep in mind also that meetings offered with a minister’s chief of staff or policy advisers can also be extremely valuable.
They are the minister’s right-hand woman or man and making sure they understand your position is important. They are responsible for raising issues with their minister and advising them on actions to take.
So follow the same advice with them: be polite, concise, organised and leave behind a few simple messages.
Being a minister is far from an easy job, especially when the general public has such a low opinion of politicians. It’s a ticket to long hours, hard work and plenty of public criticism. I sometimes wonder why anyone would do it.
But in my experience, most want to make a positive contribution to our state and think doing this outweighs the flack and pain.
So while you don’t have to love them, remembering the majority of politicians and ministers have their hearts in the right place can help smooth your frustration over getting them to do what you want.
The better you master this skill, the more respect you will earn that could open the door next time you need an audience.
Renee Wilkinson has experience working as a ministerial adviser and in government departments and is a specialist in stakeholder engagement. As part of Cannings Purple’s market-leading Government Relations team, Renee can help you design a strategy to ensure you effectively use any time you might secure with a minister and their staff. Contact Renee.