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Role of a government chief executive

Policy formation and implementation
Briefing different Ministers
MMP brings officials closer to the opposition
How laws are made
Participatory democracy
Communicating with the public
Political neutrality
Whole of government

“Chief executives of government agencies should communicate vision to staff – inspiring and creating enthusiasm,” says New Zealand Secretary of Justice Belinda Clark.


This relatively young chief executive says the most significant point about her background is that she has put her all into each of her roles and has thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.

She arrived, aged 43, at the top management role in the Ministry of Justice via employment in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Rudd Watts and Stone (now Minter Ellison), Te Puni Kokiri, Office of Treaty Settlements and ACC.

When the time comes for her photo to go alongside other heads of the Ministry of Justice, it will be evident to visitors to her office in Wellington’s Charles Fergusson building that she is the first woman at the top in that agency. She is also a single parent with three young children.

Ms Clark says the Ministry of Justice has two central goals to achieve – reducing crime and sustaining respect for the rule of law. Her role as chief executive is to create confidence in the agency by ensuring the Ministry’s services and advice are of high quality. For this professional public servant, that means being able to relate to stakeholders such as:

  • Ministers (regular interaction with the four Justice Ministers, and with other Ministers as required)
  • officials in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, State Services Commission and Treasury
  • the other Justice agencies such as Police, Department of Corrections, Department for Courts and Crown Law Office.
  • Parliamentary select committees with opposition as well as government members
  • the judiciary and the legal profession
  • the public and community groups
  • the staff in her ministry.

Policy formation and implementation

Belinda Clark says that the Justice Ministers initiate policy – and her role is to ensure the quality of the response. “Our (Justice) Ministers are activists,” she says “and have plenty of policy proposals they want to see progressed.”

She does not normally deal directly with the Prime Minister, but she does inform officials assigned to her portfolio in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Briefing different Ministers

She seeks to directly serve the four Ministers to whom the Ministry of Justice is responsible – and to inform them of impacts one might have on another as the business of government proceeds. For example, questions about the balance between the respective views and obligations of individuals and the state come to the fore as one Minister deals with criminal justice issues and another deals with human rights protections.

As far as Belinda Clark is concerned, officials should act on the level and be straightforward with Ministers, alerting them to the possible impact on other Ministers of a proposed course of action. Officials should not presume Ministers’ stances – and should leave decisions to them. That does not mean officials should pussyfoot about – they should be clear in their advice, she says.

MMP brings officials closer to the opposition

The relationship for officials with Parliament is more complex since the mixed member proportional system (MMP) replaced the first past the post (FPP) system in the 90s.

Belinda Clark notices the increased power of select committees in the MMP era. The second Helen Clark-led Labour minority government does not have a majority in most Parliamentary select committees. Proposed law is less certain of a successful passage through Parliament.

The old rule that officials communicate with Opposition through Ministers is still there – but Ministers are more relaxed about it says Ms Clark.

How laws are made

The Ministry of Justice administers more legislation than any other department and is also the sponsoring department for a considerable volume of legislation each year. It also facilitates the government’s legislative programme, acting as secretariat to the Legislation Advisory Committee which advises government on the principles of good legislation and on how particular pieces of legislation will impact on others.

Ms Clark says the Ministry of Justice advises on the logical order of legislation when it knows of allied pieces of legislation coming out of specialist government agencies. “New Zealand is a small society, and Wellington is a small city, which helps this process of government administration,” she says.

Her Ministry works with the Parliamentary Counsel Office in its specialist task of law drafting after Cabinet has determined policy.

Participatory democracy

“ The increased emphasis on participatory democracy makes the process of policy development longer,” says Belinda Clark. The Ministry’s role includes coordinating the range of views that might surface on an issue before Ministers get to work on policy initiatives. For example, the Ministry of Justice has been undertaking a review of guardianship laws, an issue which affects nearly everyone. That reform started with a public submissions process, illustrating officials’ practice of canvassing the relevant range of public views as well as those of special interest groups and providing that information in briefings to Ministers as they consider policy decisions.

Collecting and analysing pertinent views and experience is a role for officials, she says.

Communicating with the public

Over the past decades, Wellington officials have struggled with increasing public demand to communicate. Belinda Clark, spotting this trend, says officials faced with questions on policy which are more properly for Parliamentarians to answer, can nonetheless use the opportunity provided by such queries to show citizens how they can contribute to policy-making. Her advice is to describe how policy development is influenced through channels such as submissions to select committees, letters to Ministers and direct communication with government agencies.

Her essential advice to officials – be courteous, direct, clear and adept at a variety of communication styles. Not everyone can write and speak with the necessary facility to communicate with a public that increasingly wants to participate in the democratic process.

Political neutrality

Political neutrality can be observed by public servants by giving good, direct, accurate and timely advice, she says.

Whole of government

She does not see that managing a whole-of-government approach is a major problem. Sector groupings in government help provide this approach, on which more emphasis has been placed in recent years. Justice is the ‘lead agency’ for the justice sector. The membership of the sector group evolves as new needs become apparent. “It is organic,” she says. Child Youth and Family was added to the initial members of Courts, Corrections, Crown Law Office, Police and Ministry of Justice.

Belinda Clark chairs a monthly meeting of justice sector chief executives, addressing issues from information technology to crime reduction.

What is her advice to public servants seeking to take a whole of government approach?

  • Know how what you propose affects others, including counterparts in other agencies.
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes.
  • Watch for excessive complexity.
  • Anticipate what the minister needs to know.
  • Don’t avoid the issue.
  • Don’t be frightened.
  • Advise on the options.
  • Ask, is it useful?




Photo of Belinda Clark.


Photo shows solid granite pillars at Parliament buildings.

Justice is one of the pillars of our society.