Just what does this government want?

Here’s the back-office rationale for sending the SAS back to Afghanistan: it provides an exit option.

It goes like this: pull the reconstruction team out of Banyam where it is doing great work, but in a possibly unreconstructible country; set a fixed term for the SAS; pull out the SAS and leave Nato and the Taleban to it.

Sending the SAS back goes down well in Washington. The trick is not to get caught up in an “Anzac” force, as Australia wants.

The surface rationale for sending the SAS back is that it is in our free-world interests to fight dark forces in the crucible of world terrorism. The subcutaneous rationale for the exit option is that Afghanistan is close to unwinnable.

Much politics is conducted with surface and subcutaneous rationales. Working out which rationale to hone into policy and then translate into action can be a difficulty between the public service and ministers.

Ministers are amateurs who know what they (and, they say, the voters) want — or think they want. Senior public servants are professionals who have to tease out what ministers’ desires mean in terms of do-able activities and then do them in such a way that ministers think they are getting what they want.

This is complicated early in a new government’s term by mistrust. Ministers suspect public servants are infected with the previous government’s beliefs and ambitions. In 2000 that caused tension between some Clark-government ministers and chief executives.

This year some Key-government ministers brought with them into office a suspicion or belief that the public service was infected with Clark-type social-liberalism.

So ministers are cleansing government agency and company boards of Labour-suspects. Some equipped themselves with budget advisers they forced departments to pay for. Some — Judith Collins, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall and Anne Tolley notably — have had bouts of micro-management when their actual role is akin to board members, who are supposed to leave management to the chief executive.

It is not obvious how this squares with Bill English’s assertion to 300 public servants on Wednesday that they are to be “allowed to get on and do what’s required of them in an environment of respect and support” and with reinforced independence.

Moreover, his assertion assumes the public servants know what’s required of them. English is one minister who does understand that point. He said on Wednesday that, having been a public servant (briefly, in the Treasury in the late 1980s), “I know that little gets done if they don’t know what’s required and there is no respect for their role or political support when policy inevitably comes under pressure”.

He promised instead “a focus on results over process, decisions over discussion and professionalism over politics”. He then reiterated his injunction to chief executives early this year, since fleshed out by Treasury Secretary John Whitehead, to think innovatively and creatively because for years ahead funding will not match inflation (so staff numbers will have to fall).

Innovation under English could come from what he calls “inside-out government”: mining ideas within agency staffs and in non-government organisations, not-for-profits and the private sector. “We want to see ideas generated in the private sector and the NGO sector genuinely considered and appraised”.

And English expects chief executives to identify and drop programmes which don’t work or deliver too little for the cost.

Chief executives and other senior public servants have in fact set out to do all that. Their job is to give advice on and give effect to government policy.

Micro-management makes that difficult. So does not being able to work out what ministers actually want. In some portfolios the steer is clear or the chief executive ahead of the game anyway. But in some, including areas central to the cabinet’s high-level economic ambitions, senior public servants mutter they can’t divine their ministers’ ambitions and so can’t translate them into action.

It doesn’t help that some ministers’ enthusiasm for change has waned as the recession has waned — and that most ministers are not as intelligent or intellectually organised or experienced or open to new thinking as English.

Nor does it help that public servants are risk-averse. Wednesday’s self-selected audience was bending-over polite in question time. English had nothing to chew over later.

This risk-averseness is understandable. History is littered with invitations to public servants to generate daring and imaginative proposals and to tell ministers when ministers’ ideas won’t work followed by whackings for “wrong” ideas or ventures that went awry. This was a standout feature of the Clark years.

So English has a job on his hands getting public servants to believe they can be entrepreneurial and frank — and to ensure they know what they are to be entrepreneurial and frank about.