FPL Advisory's Manager - Communications Catriona McNaughton outlines the basic hallmarks of a good Ministerial brief.
The foundation for a good Ministerial brief relies on five basic characteristics which will ensure the Minister gets the information they need in the form they want – and the author is best positioned to secure the action needed. Ministers are time poor and require a range of information to assist them in making decisions
The five characteristics of a good Ministerial brief include:
Most briefs will seek some kind of outcome. Clearly identifying the possible outcomes, making recommendations and ensuring the information provided within the brief supports informed decision-making about the outcome is critical to a successful brief. It is the role of the author to understand the complexity, detail and nuance of the situation and to convey this to help the Minister in making a decision. In an ideal scenario this should also support the specific Minister in mind: some like to have supporting detailed material with infographics and tables whilst others prefer justified recommendations in plain text, so briefs can be tailored to helpful to the specific individual.
DO: Ensure relevant and concise information to inform a decision is provided
DON’T: Lose the purpose of the brief or the outcome you a seeking
Any information included within a brief must be credible as it will not only inform the decision being made but could also be repeated by the Minister in a public or parliamentary setting. Advice, recommendations and information must be completely accurate or identified with appropriate qualifiers. Anything that the author is not completely sure about should be clarified or identified for further investigation and/or advice from an alternative relevant source. You never want to be the cause of a Minister either making an incorrect public statement or worse, misleading parliament.
DO: Cross-check or qualify the information you provide
DON’T: Make assumptions about the Minister’s existing understanding of an issue
Ensuring a brief is accurate must not come at the expense of a timely brief - you should be clear about what you do and don’t know. When a critical issue arises providing the information you have, along with qualifiers and/or identified gaps and how these will be addressed, is critical to ensure the Minister can respond quickly and as appropriately as possible. In some cases, the identified lack of information can ensure that the Minister remains open to alternatives and understands the possible assumptions being made by third party stakeholders or the community before forming a view.
DO: Be diligent and aim to provide a holistic picture
DON’T: Delay the brief for non-critical details
Ministers are time poor and, while many may understand the technical detail or be subject matter experts, they will always have to communicate their decision to the community. Explaining the decision and justification in plain English without the technical or bureaucratic jargon will not only make the brief easier to digest but will also build confidence in progressing the outcome of the decision in a public setting. Explaining everything you know about a subject or hiding detail in pages of appendices makes the Minister’s job harder. When your brief is one of dozens they will read that day, you want to stand out for the ease at which they can make a decision rather than the pain you inflict in complexity. Clarity and brevity are difficult to achieve and are an important asset in building trust and rapport with the office.
DO: Write in plain English with a clear narrative and recommendations
DON’T: Use technical jargon or constantly refer to details in appendices
Decision-making is rarely a straightforward process and any outcome will likely impact a number of different areas. Knowing what the Minister cares about, the potential risks they face and opportunities that could be available supports informed decision-making. It is also important to understand the other sources of information or different viewpoints that the Minister will seek and while it is not always critical to tell all other possible government stakeholders everything, bringing relevant key stakeholders up to speed and including them as the decision is progressed means they are in a better position to help the Minister make a decision and the Minister will have greater confidence in the accuracy of the information acting as a foundation for their position.
DO: Provide a heads up to relevant stakeholders where appropriate
DON’T: Ignore the implications of a decision beyond your specific objectives
Catriona McNaughton is the Manager - Communications at FPL Advisory.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change