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Free and frank advice

Decorative image of the 'scout sign' for free and frank advice

Free and frank advice underpins our system of government.

Policy practitioners giving free and frank advice to their Ministers (and Cabinet as whole) is one of the principal tenets of our system of government. It demonstrates and upholds the impartiality fundamental to maintaining a politically neutral public service. Being both able and willing to provide free and frank advice underpins the integrity, legitimacy and performance of New Zealand’s system of government.

What is free and frank advice? The Public Service Commissioner’s 2017 guidance on free and frank advice said that this means providing advice that:

  • identifies the nature, scale and significance of the policy issue or opportunity (with supporting evidence)
  • is politically neutral while also being aware of relevant political contexts
  • recognises the historic, contemporary and potential longer term dimensions or conditions
  • is comprehensive, objective and balanced to cover the range of options that address the issue(s)
  • is honest about where the opportunities, benefits, costs, pitfalls and risks of all options are and about the limitations, assumptions and information gaps in analysis
  • is clear about any trade-offs involved and which option(s) on balance are recommended
  • delivers any hard truths in the most constructive way possible
  • covers implementation considerations.

In practice, delivering free and frank advice requires understanding both what has been requested, and what is required to enable government decisions that get the best results for people in New Zealand. It focuses on the decision-maker’s objectives, while being honest, apolitical and constructive about the best way to achieve them (which may mean challenging the decision-maker’s understanding and initial preference). Free and frank advice ensures that decision-makers are alerted to the possible consequences of following particular policies.


Read more here from commentators and experts on free and frank advice in New Zealand.

Check out the Head of the Policy Profession’s speech Free, Frank, and other F words, delivered to an IPANZ seminar in August 2015 on the infrastructure for providing free and frank policy advice.

Read Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission’s guidance on Free and Frank Advice and Policy Stewardship and check out the Frequently Asked Questions. Policy stewardship is about being well-placed to provide free and frank advice to successive governments,

Find here the Head of the Policy Profession’s speech to the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand in August 2016 on Mastering the art of free and frank advice.

Read Carl Billington’s article in the Public Service Journal in July 2018, Free and Frank – Why it Matters, for a closer look at the convention of free and frank advice, and what it means for the future.

To what extent can and should public servants expect their advice to ministers to remain confidential? Read the Head of the Policy Profession and Peter Boshier’s co-authored article Free and frank advice and the Official Information Act from the May 2018 Policy Quarterly.

The Head of the Policy Profession spoke at an Institute of Public Administration New Zealand seminar in September 2018 on Free and Frank Advice in the Context of Open Government - Why It Matters. He outlines the key points of his speech in the following video.

You may also like to check out Developing quality policy advice for Cabinet Office’s guidance on the role of free and frank advice in developing quality Cabinet papers.

The Office of the Ombudsman has published a useful resource on the Official Information Act and the public policy making process. This resource contains links to the ‘good government’ withholding grounds for official information.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 5 July 2022

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