Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? - Public Administration Committee Contents

3  Ministerial Effectiveness

66. Our academic witnesses argued that if ministers were better equipped with the necessary skills it would be possible to meet the administrative needs of government with fewer of them.[83] Lord Norton expressed a number of concerns about ministerial ability to perform their jobs. He believed that currently too much of a premium was placed on parliamentary skills.

Members who are good at the Dispatch Box and in committee are more likely to be promoted than those who may have strong managerial skills but who are poor parliamentary performers. Some ministers survive because of their performances in the House even though they may not be good at taking decisions and managing their Departments.[84]

While he thought these skills were important, he did not believe they were the only skills that were required by ministers.[85] This led to ministers being "amateurs" when it came to leading their department. As Professor Kevin Theakston pointed out in his study of junior ministers, ministerial appointments and careers in the UK follow a pattern not much different to that of the Victorian era:

a backbench apprenticeship in the House of Commons, leading to one or more junior posts on the ministerial hierarchy before promotion to the Cabinet or (more likely) a return to the backbenches or retirement from politics. Today, as in the nineteenth century, MPs continue to win office primarily for political reasons and because of their skills as parliamentarians, and not because of specialist subject expertise or extra parliamentary executive experience.[86]

67. This contrasts with experience elsewhere. As Professor Richard Rose has observed, only a limited number of ministers enter office with sufficient specialist knowledge to be able to initiate measures on their own. By comparison with other Western countries, British ministers are among the least likely to receive office because of specialist expertise.[87] He continues:

An MP is unlikely to have been involved in the problems with which the ministry deals prior to entering Parliament; to have little opportunity in Parliament to come to grips with the dilemmas of choice that the ministry faces; and often, to have had no preparation as an Opposition spokesman on the subject.[88]

68. Allied to the lack of specialist knowledge is the turnover of ministers. By the time they feel they have a good grasp of the issues and how to run the department, they get appointed to another post or are removed from the Government. New ministers come in and, in essence, are left to re-invent the wheel, relying on their experience and observations as junior ministers, their outside experience, their intuition, or guidance from officials.[89]

69. Before the Second World War, a minister was usually in place for about four years. In the quarter-century after, it was on average two years or less.[90] Nowadays, some ministers may be in place for only a matter of months. Some have held several offices within the space of a few years, John Reid (now Lord Reid of Cardowan) being a particular example. Within a period of eight years (1999-2007), he held seven posts in Cabinet. Similarly there have been 6 Secretaries of State for Defence since 2005.[91]

70. The UK Government is thus distinctive not only for having a relatively large number of ministers, but also ministers who are unspecialised in the areas for which they are responsible and for which they may have responsibility for only a short space of time. This lack of continuity in government departments can only serve to undermine ministerial effectiveness. Prime Ministers should resist the temptation to hold regular, extensive reshuffles.

Training and guidance

71. Senior ministers have usually been appointed to office with little guidance from the Prime Minister as to what is expected of them and have been left to determine for themselves how they should manage their departments, including their junior ministers.[92] Some training is now made available to ministers. The National School of Government already offers professional development for ministers in the form of its "Ministerial Programme." Its website describes the programme as follows:

There are no lectures, no traditional classroom training sessions, and no "off the shelf" courses. Everything we do is tailored to the needs of individual Ministers. Our approach is based heavily on active participation, informal workshops and access to the right experts at the right time.[93]

Lord Norton shared with us his answer to a Parliamentary Question asking for details about the provision made for training coalition ministers:

...the number of Ministers who have attended induction events organised by the national school, or who have commissioned expert briefings or other forms of leadership development, are as follows: induction workshops: 31 Ministers; induction briefings to individual Ministers or to specific teams of Ministers: 32 Ministers; expert parliamentary briefings: nine Ministers; expert finance and governance briefings: three Ministers; and individual work on leadership development: nine Ministers.[94]

While welcoming this provision, he remained of the opinion that the provision of training remained "somewhat sporadic". As a consequence he believed that:

Government has tended to be inefficient, relying on quantity rather than quality in the provision of ministers. Senior ministers are not trained in managing a Department and do not necessarily know how to get the best out of their junior ministers. They may well be able to do more with less.[95]

72. Another complaint sometimes made by former ministers, in addition to a lack of training, is the absence of any formal induction. One former Lords minister commented that:

I was dropped right in it. A few weeks after appointment I was taking a Bill through the Lords. It was sink or swim.[96]

73. The IfG is currently engaged in a major research project investigating ministerial effectiveness, which is being led by Rt Hon Peter Riddell. The project will be addressing the following questions: what are the characteristics of an effective minister? What are the main influences on effectiveness? Why aren't there more effective ministers? And what can be done to improve the situation?[97] This project has not yet been completed or reached any firm conclusions. However, Mr Riddell's submission included some suggestions as to how ministerial effectiveness might be improved. These were:

i.  Improving the management of ministerial careers - greater stability in office; a more formal appraisal system; and

ii.  Improving ministerial development via systematic mentoring, coaching and advice at various stages of a ministerial career.[98]

74. When we put these suggestions to former ministers there was some appetite for more training and a genuine review process. Lord Rooker commented that when Labour came to Government it initially ran awaydays for ministers to allow them to collectively discuss problems across different departments, which he had found useful. He also commented that more formal professional development for ministers would be useful, including a "genuine appraisal system."[99] Other suggestions made by former ministers included a:

mentoring process, whereby a more experienced minister acts as a guide for a newly-appointed minister.[100]

Another possibility was to provide written guidance; something already done in New Zealand, Scotland and the US.[101]

75. Professor David Richards, University of Sheffield, interviewed former Labour ministers about their preparation for office in 1997. This had included a seminar series at Templeton College, Oxford. However, participants were dubious about its value. For Margaret Beckett, who served as Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for a large part of Tony Blair's administration, "... the key issue was that no training can prepare you for the pressure of ministerial life, only experience helps". Another, unnamed minister found the training "irrelevant".[102]

76. Mike Penning MP expressed a major reservation about giving more training to ministers

I would really worry if you had to do a course and pass a course to be a minister, because we're not clones, we're individuals. [...] I'd have failed the course; whatever course you put me on.[103]

Norman Baker MP said that he felt his time as an opposition spokesman had provided him with the knowledge necessary to perform his job. He also argued that that many of the skills needed to be a successful minister were those which he had developed during his time in the House:

Part of the skills of being a politician, in so far as you have them, you learn them before you get to office: how to communicate with people, I hope; how to prioritise your time; and how to absorb information quite quickly. Those are the skills that a Member of Parliament has to have, so in that sense a Minister just has the same skills.[104]

77. We are not persuaded by these observations. Undoubtedly Parliamentary experience does provide many of the skills that Members of Parliament need to perform well as a minister. However, other skills notably those required to oversee a large and complex organisation are unlikely to be developed during a Member's career in the House.

78. Our predecessor's Report Skills for Government concluded that more "could be done to professionalise the ministerial side of the business of government." It recommended a systematic performance appraisal system and argued that there was a need to instil a "culture of commitment to professional development amongst ministers."[105]

79. We endorse the recommendation of PASC in the last Parliament that there should be more systematic training, mentoring, coaching and assessment of ministers. While we concur with the scepticism expressed that it is impossible for any training or induction to prepare a minister for all the challenges that he will facing during his time in office, this does not mean that such training is useless, merely that its limitations should be understood. The purpose should be to help them identify areas of their performance where they can improve. This should not be seen as criticism of current ministers' performance, merely an acknowledgement that everyone, including ministers, can always find ways to be better at their job.

83   Q 142 Back

84   Ev 57 Back

85   Q 164 Back

86   Kevin Theakston, Junior Ministers in British Government (Oxford, 1987), p.41 Back

87   Richard Rose, Ministers and Ministries (Oxford, 1987), p. 81 Back

88   Ibid. p 81 Back

89   Ev 59 Back

90   Rose, Ministers and Ministries, p 83 Back

91   Geoff Hoon, John Reid, Des Browne, John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Dr Liam Fox. Back

92   Philip Norton, 'Barons in a Shrinking Kingdom: Senior Ministers in British Government', in R. A. W. Rhodes (ed), Transforming British Government, Vol. 2 (Basingstoke, 2000), p 106. Back

93   "About the Ministerial Programme", National School of Government, 11 February 2011, Back

94   HL Deb, 27 October 2010, col. 291W. Back

95   Ev 58 Back

96   Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, p 37 Back

97   Ev 55 Back

98   Ibid. Back

99   Qq 92-93 Back

100   Yong and Hazell, "Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves", p 32-33 Back

101   Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, p 33 Back

102   David Richards, New Labour and the Civil Service, (Basingstoke, 2008), pp 80-81 Back

103   Q 274 [Mike Penning] Back

104   Q 275 [Norman Baker] Back

105   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2006-07, Skills for Government, HC 93, paras 149- 151 Back

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