Andrew Horwood, a Managing Principal at MartinJenkins, explains what our public servants are likely to be focussing on or trying to avoid during the “interregnum” period between Parliaments.

Like every Cabinet Minister, Sisyphus wanted a break

Classical scholars will know the story of Sisyphus, captured by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (and by an Andrew Bird song). Sisyphus betrayed Zeus and was sentenced to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a steep hill. Zeus programmed the boulder to roll back down every time it got near the top.

For much of a three-year electoral cycle, some Ministers can feel like Sisyphus. As one project-rock arrives at the summit by being delivered to Cabinet or passed into law, the next is waiting at the bottom of the hill.

But during the pre- and post-election period some of the usual rocks don’t need to be pushed. Basic public services continue to run of course – for example, passports are issued and prisons and hospitals stay open – but before an election Parliament stops debating and passing laws and Ministers swap their governing rocks for campaigning rocks. After the election Ministers are often preoccupied by negotiations to form the next government.

This “interregnum” period between the dissolution of one Parliament and the opening of the next has its own special conventions. All public servants, whether in a central agency or in the most independent of Crown entities, need to be familiar with those conventions.

If you’re someone who needs to engage with public servants – for example, you work in an NGO, an industry body, or somewhere else outside the Wellington beltway – it also pays to be aware of those conventions. This article aims to help outsiders understand the limitations and pressures that the interregnum conventions impose on our public servants. (It doesn’t consider the more political interactions between lobbyists and parties during this period – that’s an entirely different boulder.)

Agencies will be prioritising work they want to get through Cabinet before the election

The coming election started to affect the functioning of government agencies around mid‑July, about three months before polling day – this matches the political cycle, with the three months of election advertising limits before the election.

As an election approaches, policy agencies spend more time doing the math on how many sitting days remain before Parliament is adjourned (this year it’s on 31 August, with the formal dissolution on 8 September), and prioritising those decisions that need to be made before the election. They advise their Minister on what business the Minister should continue to focus on and what can wait.

Before the election Cabinet and Cabinet committees will be meeting less often, and Ministers will be much less available, as they’re preoccupied with campaigning. Cabinet may choose to postpone some decisions in the pre-election period.

For NGOs, industry bodies, and others not deep inside government-world, you might find the timing of government decision making to be particularly tricky to pin down. This can make your business planning difficult, particularly if a process you’re involved in has a statutory deadline.

Agencies will be preparing to brief new Ministers

Agencies are likely to use the early interregnum period to draft one or more briefings for the incoming Minister – or “BIMs”. These summarise the key responsibilities and issues within a portfolio. Ministers are likely to receive BIMs from policy agencies and Crown entities, and even BIM-like documents from organisations outside government.

Agencies may prepare more than one BIM to be ready for different election outcomes. Once the outcome is clear, they may put multiple BIMs to their Ministers, or use the BIM to launch a series of targeted introductory briefings on key topics.

For NGOs and others outside this process, now is a good time to surface any evidence you have about policy changes that could lead to better outcomes. Look to engage with officials to give them something to challenge their internal thinking. This is one of the few times within the cycle when officials come off the treadmill of providing advice and can stand back and think about things with a relatively blank sheet of paper.

Public servants will be being careful to stay apolitical

Our public service supports the elected government of the day and its policies rather than any particular political party. Government policies are those that have been formally approved by Cabinet and announced by Ministers.

Staying politically neutral is more important than ever in the lead-up to the election, when Ministers focus on the hyper-political activity of getting re-elected.

If you’re outside government, remember that officials will be being very careful during this time to play things straight down the middle. They won’t want to be caught in a political ruckus, so may delay appointments or consultation processes, or otherwise do things or make decisions that frustrate your own processes or timelines.

Agencies are likely to postpone consultation on controversial topics

When agencies are consulting with the public or specific sectors, they must take care that the consultation material serves government purposes and is free from any partisan promotion of party policy. To steer well clear of any danger areas, officials may decide to postpone consultation on especially controversial topics until after the election.

Agencies with statutory independence and an advocacy role are expected to be particularly careful not to be drawn into political debate through launching consultation processes. They will start to place additional scrutiny of their use of all forms of media, including social media.

If your industry is waiting for a consultation process to start, you may need to wait until a new Minister has their feet under the desk.

Agencies and Ministers will avoid making significant appointments before the election

Successive governments have also chosen to exercise restraint in making significant appointments. This convention avoids an incumbent government being seen as stacking the decks when an imminent change of government is possible. It also avoids potential appointees being drawn into political debate.

If you’re waiting for a key appointment in an agency, your wait may be a little longer than anticipated.

The post-election “caretaker” convention also limits decision making

Under our MMP system it’s unusual for a single party to be able to govern alone (the Labour majority government elected in 2020 is seen as an aberration). Forming a government is expected to involve inter-party negotiations that could take weeks, and during this time government agencies are expected to apply “caretaker” principles to their decision making as far as possible.

The caretaker convention says that if it’s clear the incumbent government won’t stay in power, it should avoid new policy initiatives and must act on the advice of the incoming government on any significant matters until new Ministers are appointed. The transitions in these situations usually shouldn’t last very long.

Things can be thornier and the transition periods longer when it’s not clear who’ll form the next government. In these cases normal government business continues but agencies are supposed to defer significant decisions, if possible.

If it’s not possible for them to defer a decision, the caretaker convention says they should handle the issue with a temporary or holding arrangement that doesn’t commit the next government in the longer term. If that’s not possible either, the incumbent government should consult with other political parties to ensure the action it’s proposing has majority support in the House.

It can be difficult to predict whether an agency of a caretaker government will move ahead with a decision or action that your organisation may have been waiting for. The bible of the beltway, the Cabinet manual, says (at 6.28):

"There are no hard and fast rules. Ministers may need to take into account various considerations (including political considerations), in deciding whether it is appropriate or necessary to proceed on a matter and how the matter should be handled."

Take advantage of the breather

Te Kawa Mataaho | Public Service Commission provides a range of guidance for public servants on the complexities of the election interregnum. Real-life situations require sound judgment, but a key underlying principle is always to ensure that the public service stays politically neutral.

The interregnum brings a bright side for our policy agencies, in that for a time the usual Sisyphean rocks of policy advice and law making don’t require the same effort. It allows them to focus on making sure their conduct is appropriate to the interregnum, and on preparing for when a new government arrives with more 100-day priorities to push up the hill.

For industry groups, NGOs, and public-sector entities outside the policy agencies, the deferrals and delays involved with the election interregnum can bring some frustrations. But these organisations are also given the chance to catch our policy agencies as they take this breather from rolling the standard governmental rocks, and to get them to take a second look at existing approaches.


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