The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is part of the public service, employing non-partisan public servants serving the prime minister of the day. The department works closely with the Prime Minister’s Office, which manages the prime minister’s political priorities.
A prime minister’s department was initially established in 1926, but for its first 50 years was located within the Department of External Affairs. The current department was formed in 1989 from the merger of various separate offices, including the Cabinet Office.
Chief executive’s role
The chief executive of the department is the prime minister’s principal policy adviser. Anything of professional concern to the prime minister (other than re-election) is of interest to the chief executive.
As the only department head to be located with ministers and the prime minister in the executive wing of parliament, the chief executive has unparalleled access to ministers. And as the only department head with access to all cabinet papers, he or she has an unparalleled range of influence.
The chief executive is the principal conduit between the prime minister and the public service. He or she ensures that public-service leaders respond to the government’s priorities and that the prime minister is aware of emerging concerns.
Prime minister’s advisory group
The department includes a small advisory group (generally around 10–15 people) who prepare advice for the prime minister on any issue of government policy or management, and are informally known as the prime minister’s eyes and ears. Staff in the group are drawn from across the state services and the private sector; most stay for a few years before returning to their former positions.
Some pressing issues are investigated by groups within the prime minister’s department. When house prices jumped by 80% between 2002 and 2007 (similar growth had taken the previous 40 years), a House Prices Unit was set up. The unit concluded that population growth, the tax structure, low interest rates and readily available credit had all contributed to the increase.
National security is a central responsibility of all prime ministers and this is reflected in the department. The chief executive chairs the Officials Committee on Domestic and External Security Coordination. That committee consists of the heads of all the security agencies of the government, including the Police, the armed services and the intelligence agencies.
During times of national emergency the committee meets often (commonly daily and occasionally more frequently) to ensure that the government’s response is coordinated and that misunderstandings are avoided.
The department also has a leadership role across the intelligence community. Its intelligence coordination group ensures that intelligence collection is focused on national priorities. Another group within the department, the National Assessments Bureau, draws on information from all sources to monitor and report on any threat to security.