Trust, Service

& Accountability

Behaving Ethically

1.1 Roles and responsibilities in the Westminster System

This guide aims to assist employees in the NSW Public Service and certain employees in the NSW Transport Service to understand the various roles and responsibilities in the Westminster System and, as a result, to be in a better position to provide professional support to Ministers.

Fundamentally, the role of NSW public servants in our system – the Westminster System – has not changed in 150 years. It continues to be one of serving the people of the State by implementing the policies, decisions and programs of the Government of the day, and providing apolitical, non-partisan advice to Ministers.

This role is now strengthened by the Ethical framework for the NSW government sector, which enshrines a set of core values and principles in legislation.

The Ethical Framework in Part 2 of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 “recognises the role of the government sector in preserving the public interest, defending public value, and adding professional quality and value to the commitments of the Government of the day”.

As defined in Government Sector Employment Act 2013, the NSW government sector comprises the Public Service, the Teaching Service, the NSW Police Force, the NSW Health Service, the NSW Transport Service, any other service of the Crown, and bodies prescribed by regulation for the purpose of the definition.

A key responsibility of Public Service employees – and Transport Service employees who provide advice to their Minister – is to act according to the conventions of the Westminster System.

As most government sector employees working as teachers, nurses and police officers do not advise Ministers, the obligations of the Westminster System do not arise in the course of their duties.

While the Westminster System has a number of unchanging characteristics, it is best described as operating within a set of parameters. From time to time, certain elements of the system may be given greater or lesser emphasis by different governments.

As a starting point, employees should be aware that, in the Westminster System:

  • Ministers and Cabinet decide policy, and are free either to accept, or reject, advice, options and recommendations provided by departments and agencies
  • Although employees are under the direction of their Secretary or agency head, they have a clear duty to respond promptly and professionally to Ministers’ requests for advice or information
  • Advice to Ministers must be “apolitical and non-partisan”, meaning advice that is evidence-based, impartial, that places the public interest over personal interest, and is uninfluenced by party political considerations or by personal political allegiances
  • Advice to Ministers must also be “frank and fearless”: this means laying out all the options and dealing honestly with all the issues, including those that are difficult, complicated and problematic.