Writing For Ministers And Cabinet Department Of The Prime

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Writing for Ministers and Cabinet
Contents Purpose of this document
Purpose of this document.............................................................................. 2 This document contains guidance on different types of communication
Publication details .......................................................................................... 2 with Ministers and Cabinet. Whether you’re writing a Cabinet paper, a
policy paper, an aide memoire, or an A3, you’ll find high-level descriptions
Writing clearly ................................................................................................ 3 of what’s involved, links to resources, and tips for success

Briefing papers ............................................................................................... 5
Each government agency has its own processes for communicating with
Aides memoire ............................................................................................... 5 Ministers and Cabinet. We encourage you to seek out your own
Policy Quality Framework overview .............................................................. 9 organisation’s guidance on language style, process and templates. The
Cabinet papers ............................................................................................. 10 information in this document should enhance the approach you take and
help you communicate more effectively

A3 presentations .......................................................................................... 12
This guide can be used as a training tool for new or developing public
servants. It can be a reminder of good practice for more experienced
advisors and analysts who want to refine their writing skills, in a policy

Publication details
This version was released in October 2020 by the Policy Project

© Crown copyright This document can be downloaded as a PDF from the DPMC website

It's also available in HTML format

The Policy Project
c/o The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
licence. In essence, you are free to copy, distribute and adapt the work, as long as Parliament Buildings
you attribute the work to the Crown and abide by the other licence terms. Wellington 6160
To view a copy of this licence, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. New Zealand
Please note that no departmental or governmental emblem, logo or Coat of Arms
may be used in any way which infringes any provision of the Flags, Emblems, and
Names Protection Act 1981. Attribution to the Crown should be in written form and Email: [email protected]
not by reproduction of any such emblem, logo or Coat of Arms

Website: www.dpmc.govt.nz/our-programmes/policy-project
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 2
Writing clearly 1. Choose plain, familiar language
Whether your readers are individual Ministers or Cabinet, your senior • Choose common words – use the smallest word with the most
leadership team or the public, writing clearly will help you get your obvious meaning that does the job. Readers will absorb your
message across. This guidance should be applied to all the written message better if your words are familiar and easily
products for Ministers and Cabinet described in this document. understandable

Thinking also about the presentation of the document will make your • Avoid abstract terms – figurative language and metaphors require
writing easier to read. The layout and formatting should help the reader more effort to understand than plain, simple language. Abstract
absorb the messages quickly and easily. Use headings to tell a clear story, concepts can make your reader lose interest. Resist the urge to be
and charts and diagrams to support understanding. creative and metaphorical. Be literal and direct

Below are four main principles that can help you write clearly. They are • Use verbs, not nouns – verb phrases are direct and active, while
described in more detail over the next two pages. noun phrases are longer and lack momentum. Compare the
following: ‘We discussed the issue’ and ‘We had a discussion on the
issue’. Using verbs will carry your reader through the text

• Avoid jargon and buzzwords – sometimes technical language is
necessary, but keep jargon to a minimum and avoid using
2. Use short 3. Use the buzzwords. Ask, ‘Would a member of the public know this term?’
sentences active voice If not, try rephrasing. Limit the use of acronyms where possible

2. Use short sentences and paragraphs
• Keep sentences around 15 to 20 words – this length is best for
1. Choose 4. Use reader comprehension. Try to not go over 30 words per sentence

plain, familiar inclusive • Avoid redundancies – remove any words that are not needed for
language language your reader’s understanding. Are there phrases or descriptions that
Principles repeat often? Get other people to review your work with a fresh pair
of clear of eyes and keep an open mind to their suggestions

• Lead with action – start your sentence with the main point. Don’t
hide the action at the end, or your audience may have to reread

Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 3
3. Use the active voice
The Read Test
• 80 to 90% of your verbs should be active – active sentences are
stronger and clearer. Consider the difference between ‘Jack climbed Always read your text aloud
the hill’ and ‘The hill was climbed by Jack’. Sometimes the passive
voice is appropriate, but keep it to a minimum. The only way to know how your
writing sounds is to read it out loud

• Use ‘you’ and ‘we’ – personal pronouns are clear and short. They This is always a good idea when
create a more appealing and engaging tone. No matter how writing, for two main reasons:
educated or formal your audience is, using ‘you’ and ‘we’ will keep
their interest and help their understanding. 1. You’ll find out how easy it is to read

If the sentences are too long or punctuation marks
• Express action, not intention – consider the difference between ‘I are in the wrong place, you’ll notice. Use this insight
apologise’ and ‘I want to apologise’: in the latter, no apology has to edit and re-draft to improve your reader’s
been made. Be clear and confident about the action you’ll take. experience

Unless you need to be vague, avoid weakening it with words like
‘hope’, ‘try’, ‘aim’, ‘seek’ or ‘intend’. 2. You’ll hear how it sounds

Our ears can be more reliable than our eyes at
4. Use inclusive, inviting language noticing repetitive words or sounds. If it doesn’t
sound good, fix it

• Use gender neutral language – avoid terms such as chairman and
fireman, but also think about less common words such as
‘manpower’ or ‘man-made’. Collective pronouns like ‘they’ and
‘them’ can replace ‘he’ and ‘she’

• Use people’s terms for themselves – whether the group is based Resources for writing clearly
around ethnicity, sexuality or disability, use the terms that people
use for themselves (where possible). In regard to disability, the New • Plain language materials and resources
Zealand Disability Strategy provides further guidance. www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/
• Use a positive, helpful tone – your reader will respond more
favourably if you sound like you want to help them. Try to sound • Plain English Campaign
less formal and more human. www.plainenglish.co.uk
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 4
Briefing papers Aides memoire
Most briefings to the Minister will be requested by their office. Many An aide memoire provides your Minister with information for an event,
agencies use the term ‘briefing’ to describe a wide range of papers such as a speaking engagement, panel discussion or meeting

produced for Ministers. In the context of this guidance we use the word
‘briefing’ to mean relatively short papers setting out some initial The aide memoire can provide talking points, background information, and
information and advice. Sometimes briefings are used by an agency to any facts and figures that will equip your Minister to speak confidently and
advise a Minister on something it wants them to know. There are two competently. Try to predict what potential questions they might be asked
kinds of briefing papers you’re most likely to write. in that context, and then provide the necessary information. A good aide
memoire will help the Minister communicate in a well-spoken, aware and
1. Requests for information – when a Minister asks to be informed or informed manner

needs to be briefed on an event, issue or operational matter. This
form of initial briefing provides necessary background information An aide memoire must be very easy to read
and in some cases can seek approval for more detailed work

Ministers are very busy and sometimes need briefings completed at If your Minister needs to translate the talking points into actual speech, it’s
short notice. less helpful. More than ever, you need to use plain language and short
sentences. Keep your paragraphs simple and bite-sized. Make the
2. Advice on consultation – when you inform your Minister about information accurate and easily digestible

another agency’s policy advice to their Minister following an inter-
agency consultation round. A short briefing is usually required Before you finish the aide memoire, read it out loud

because another agency’s advice has implications for your Minister’s How does it sound? Are the sentences short enough
portfolio. Your briefing would usually include your Ministry’s view, to read easily? Do they flow like natural speech?
and may recommend action to your Minister, such as discussing the Keep editing until the talking points sound pleasing
issue with their colleagues. to your ear

For both short initial briefings and aides memoire some advice is the same:
 Less is more – Ministers would expect a short briefing to be covered in two pages

Time’s a precious resource in a Minister’s office, so trim your information down and then trim it again

 Identify your primary question where appropriate using the CTQ (Context, Trigger, Question) method on page 7

Anything that does not answer this focal question can be left out

 Write clearly using plain language – refer to the plain language instructions on pages 3 and 4

Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 5
Policy advice papers
Policy advice requests Good processes and quality assurance
A request for more substantive policy advice can stem from an initial Seek out your own agency’s guidance on developing policy advice for
briefing to your Minister that recommends more work be done. It can also Ministers. Make sure you’re familiar with the timings for internal sign-off
come from a decision taken by a Ministerial Group or Cabinet. processes for policy papers

This work could be part of an ongoing project on the Government’s work Policy papers brief the Minister on your agency’s analysis of the issues

programme or a new initiative. It may involve a sequence of papers that They should define the problem or opportunity, outline the evidence and
need further direction and approval from Cabinet along the way, or could any consultation undertaken, and set out the agency’s free and frank
result in streams of work being referred elsewhere and dovetailed with advice

sector-led projects

Advice can set out a range of options from maintaining the status quo, to
Advice can be prepared jointly with other agencies or as part of a making operational changes and amending legislation or other policy
ministerial review or working group process. settings

It’s important to note your Minister will have the power to make some The recommendations you make to your Minister will form the basis for
policy decisions independently of their Cabinet colleagues, while other their decision-making. They should help your Minister formulate next steps
decisions will require Cabinet authorisation. For a list of issues that need and the scope of any consultation with Cabinet

to be taken to Cabinet, refer to the Cabinet papers section on page 10 and
Good policy decisions are informed by free and frank advice, so it’s
the Cabinet Office links on page 11

important to be familiar with what that means in principle and in practice

“Advice given to Ministers must be honest, impartial, and include all relevant information. It must also be responsive to the
priorities determined by the government of the day. Advice should be free and frank, and acknowledge any key information gaps,
assumptions, risks or connections to other matters. This will allow Ministers to take decisions based on the best available evidence
and appreciation of all the options and issues.”
Paragraph 3.59, Cabinet Manual
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 6
Developing quality policy advice Communicating advice – Storylining
Additional support for producing quality policy advice can be found in the Storylining is another tool to ensure your written policy advice or ‘story’ is
Start Right Guidance, Policy Quality Framework and Methods Toolbox clearly communicated. Start by identifying the primary question that the
which were developed by The Policy Project. paper will answer. If you need help identifying the primary question, use
the ‘CTQ’ (Context, Trigger, Question) method

The ‘Start Right’ approach
Experience shows that certain behaviours are critical to high quality, timely
1. Context – start by describing the topic
and clear policy advice. This is especially true when they are applied early (e.g. a health outbreak is causing harm in the community)

on in the policy process. The Start Right Guide sets out a best practice
approach to starting a policy project or fulfilling policy advice requests. 2. Trigger – explain why you’re talking about the topic
(e.g. people are ill as a result of a lack of services to manage the
Policy Quality Framework outbreak, and a review has recommended changes)

The Policy Quality Framework was developed by policy experts to support
3. Question – the question answered by the document
the development of good quality advice. The framework sets out the
(e.g. how can the government best enable the service to reach
standards for high quality advice that’s fit for purpose. You can find more
more people? – to which the answer is an operational response and
information about the Policy Quality Framework on pages 7 and 8

increased funding)

Policy Methods Toolbox If you’re asking the Minister to make a decision, check that the analysis
The Policy Methods Toolbox is a growing list of new methods that can be and options support the recommendations – and ultimately offer an
used for gathering evidence, insights and analysis to feed into policy answer to the question

projects. The toolbox list is iterative and will be expanded over time

Writing for Ministers and Cabinet
Analysis and advice on regulatory impacts
Certain types of policy issues may have to meet more specific Resources for quality policy advice
requirements about form and process

• Guidance on Free and Frank Advice & Policy Stewardship
Regulatory proposals www.publicservice.govt.nz/spirit-of-service/guidance-on-
Unless an exemption applies, all policy proposals considered by Cabinet
that may affect legislation must be accompanied by a Regulatory impact • Start Right Guidance
statement. The content of this statement is the responsibility of your www.dpmc.govt.nz/publications/start-right-guide
agency. It should present your agency’s best analysis and advice, which
• Policy Methods Toolbox
might differ from what your Minister is proposing. It needs to be
independently reviewed

The underlying analysis for the statement should be started as early as
• Policy Quality Framework
possible so it can be used to advise your Minister on the policy issues and
options. It can be tested through meaningful consultation before the
analysis is finalised. For further information, see the Treasury’s guidance
on Regulatory impact statements. • Regulatory impact statements
Spending proposals impact-assessments
Where the financial implications of a proposal will involve investment • Cabinet Office circular CO(15)5 – Investment management
decisions, Cabinet may also require you to complete a business case. For and asset performance
further information on these requirements, see the links to Better Business www.dpmc.govt.nz/publications/co-19-6-investment-
Case Guidance and the Cabinet Office circular on Investment and Asset. management-and-asset-performance-state-services-html
Ideally all policy proposals with financial implications that require Cabinet • Better Business Case Guidance
approval should be submitted through the Budget initiative process. www.treasury.govt.nz/statesector/investmentmanagement/
Consult early with Treasury officials about preparing advice that feeds into plan/bbc/guidance
the government’s investment cycle – see the last link on the right. • Preparing policy advice with financial implications (CO(15)4
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 8
Policy Quality Framework overview
Quality standards for written policy and
other advice
These standards will help you assess and improve the quality of your
agency’s written policy and other advice, and whether it’s fit for purpose

The advice may be for a minister, Cabinet, or other decision-makers, and
may be jointly provided with other agencies. Depending on the issue and
the nature of the advice the paper provides, sometime not all of the
standards will be applicable. Oral advice should also meet the spirit of
these standards but not necessarily their detail. All agencies are required
to use the Policy Quality Framework to assess the quality of their policy
advice each year and include the results in their annual reports

For the detailed version of the Policy Quality Framework visit
Resources to support
• Developing papers with the Policy Quality Framework
(includes questions to help you develop or review a paper)
• Using the Policy Quality Framework to assess papers
– a guide on panels and processes
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 9
Cabinet papers Cabinet committees
Before a paper goes to Cabinet, it’s considered and discussed in detail by
Policy advice for Cabinet consideration Cabinet committees. Ministers outside Cabinet can sit on Cabinet
committees and take papers to Cabinet. Cabinet committee decisions on a
Cabinet provides a forum for Ministers in government to collectively make paper’s recommendations are recorded in a Report of Committee minute
decisions and keep one another informed. Cabinet usually meets on that seeks confirmation from Cabinet the following week. The final decision
Mondays at 1pm

lies with Cabinet

Cabinet considers significant issues or policy changes, regulation changes,
Eleven subject-related Cabinet committees (as at October 2020)
decisions involving major funding, ratification of international treaties, and
appointments to boards or prominent public service positions. Ministers’ • (APH) Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee
offices can provide guidance on whether or not an issue needs to go to • (CBC) Cabinet Business Committee
Cabinet. As a general rule, Ministers should let their colleagues know • (CPC) Cabinet Priorities Committee
which issues they want to be consulted on

• (DEV) Cabinet Economic Development Committee
Refer to Cabinet manual 5.11 and 5.12 for more information on decision- • (ENV) Cabinet Environment, Energy and Climate Committee
making arrangements, requirements and processes for coalition and
• (ERS) Cabinet External Relations and Security Committee
support party Ministers

• (GOV) Cabinet Government Administration and Expenditure Review
The Cabinet decision-making process
• (LEG) Cabinet Legislation Committee
• (MCR) Cabinet Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti Committee
• (SWC) Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee
• COVID-19 Ministerial Group
Make sure you’re familiar with the timetable, membership and terms of
reference of the committees that are relevant to you. As this list is subject
to change, check the page Cabinet committees to ensure you have the
most up-to-date information

The timetable for Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings is available on
CabNet. For those who don’t have access to CabNet, more information can
be found on the page Uploading Cabinet Papers

Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 10
Preparing Cabinet papers
A Cabinet paper is effectively the voice of your Minister communicating
with their Cabinet colleagues. It’s the Minister’s paper, so find out your CabNet is a secure electronic
Minister’s preferred style. Use their language if that’s their preference. system that supports Cabinet
and Cabinet committee
Cabinet papers should:
processes. It’s the central
• be concise, coherent and logical, and structured so the key issues repository and workflow system for meetings, papers and
stand out, using headings and subheadings minutes of decisions. CabNet is administered by the Cabinet
• be under ten pages (the recommended maximum length) Office, and access to CabNet material is limited to authorised
users in Ministers’ offices and departments. Cabinet papers
• use plain language, short paragraphs, uncomplicated sentences, and
are submitted into CabNet by 10am on the Thursday of the
bullet points where appropriate
week before the Cabinet committee’s consideration

• contain consistent and accurate information (including figures and
dates – fact check everything)
• have clear, logical recommendations that show the pathway of
decision-making – write them so they can stand alone, because they
will need to do so in the minutes
Resources for Cabinet papers
• use appendices or attachments to include further supporting
information where necessary • CabGuide
• use the latest template if regulatory impact analysis is required –
see the section Analysis and advice on regulatory impacts and the • Uploading papers into CabNet
Treasury’s guidance on Impact analysis requirements www.dpmc.govt.nz/publications/cabnet-uploading-
• use charts, diagrams and other graphics to help understanding
• Regulatory impact statements
• avoid acronyms where possible – Ministers comment regularly on www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/legislation/
the overuse of acronyms in Cabinet papers; even if your Minister regulatory-impact-assessments
knows an acronym, other Ministers may not

• Current list of Cabinet committees
Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 11
A3 presentations Influencing with visual elements
A3s provide a visual overview that can simplify complex ideas and issues People remember information better when it’s combined
for a Minister or Cabinet. They can be used as a discussion tool to support with images. Facts and information tire the brain, but
quality thinking early on in policy development. They can paint a picture of attractive colours and shapes will please your reader on a
the policy issues and provide a breakdown of options. Good A3s are subconscious level. Do not underestimate the importance
attractive and easy to read. of this reaction. Readers will respond well to your message if the
presentation makes them feel good. If it does not, they may lose interest

Think of the A3 as the ‘Little Golden Book’ version – the story has been
reduced to its essence, with less text and more pictures. Developing an A3 Influence your reader’s reaction by considering:
will test how well you understand your message, as you’ll need to be more  the emotional temperature of the colours – think about the mood
selective and clear about what you say. generated by reds and oranges as opposed to blues and greens

 alignment of lines and boxes – PowerPoint is helpful for showing
If you don’t know how to start… you when the objects are aligned, but if this has been done poorly,
• Group your information into boxes and ask: ‘If I could only keep one your audience can feel subconsciously that something isn’t right
of these boxes, which would it be?’ The box you choose is your main  a layout that seems familiar and meets your reader’s expectations
message. Let that message shape your presentation

 the connections between the parts of your A3 – the sequence of
• Is there a natural structure in your information? For example, a information should be obvious. This is why it can be helpful to base
sequence might suggest a timeline, a cycle could suit a circular it on a single structure that suits the information

shape, and a layered approach might work well as a pyramid. The
natural flow of the content will suggest the best layout

Clarify your purpose and hook your reader PowerPoint tip
The A3 option in PowerPoint is not a true match for an A3 sized paper

• Use your title to hook your reader. Use the text beneath it to explain
Before you start work on your A3, get the dimensions right:
why they should care about your message

• Change the slide size: Click Design > Slide Size > Custom
• Find out how much your reader already knows. This will help you
Slide Size

identify the main question your reader will have. Knowing these
questions will help you choose which information to include and • Set your dimensions to: W 42cm x H 29.7cm
which to leave out. (for portrait, swap the numbers around)

Writing for Ministers and Cabinet 12

Organisation’s guidance on language style, process and templates. The information in this document should enhance the approach you take and help you communicate more effectively. This guide can be used as a training tool for new or developing public servants. It can be a reminder of good practice for more experienced

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does the department of the prime minister and cabinet do?

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) provides high quality advice and support to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, Portfolio Ministers and Assistant Ministers to achieve a coordinated and innovative approach to the development and implementation of Government policies.

What is the department of the cabinet office?

On 11 March 1968, Prime Minister John Gorton split off a section of the Prime Minister's Department to form the Department of the Cabinet Office with responsibility to service the Cabinet and the committees of Cabinet.

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Contact. You can contact the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet either by phone, fax, email or post, or use our enquiries form below.

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