27 October 2017

A new series of candid interviews with former ministers reveals what today’s cohort could learn about making a success of ministerial office. The most important lessons for getting things done come from Lord Heseltine, argues Tess Kidney Bishop. 

Lord Heseltine got a lot of things done in government. With over twenty years of experience in ministerial office, he had a major impact on policy areas as diverse as the European Space Agency to the poll tax. He was also instrumental in setting the devolution and regeneration agendas.

Today’s government ministers should pay heed to Heseltine’s insights.

Lord Heseltine’s reflections are among today’s series of in-depth interviews with Harriet Harman, Baroness Warsi and Baroness Stowell, the latest in the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series.

In these interviews, politicians speak about how they worked with the civil service, responded to crises and drove reform. They also reflect on how they handled their key political relationships and what can be done to help ministers be more effective in government.

Lord Heseltine’s success in government can be distilled into four key lessons for ministers: prioritise, get the right information, engage and learn. 

Prioritise: “Know exactly what you want to get done and to articulate it clearly”

Keeping a small and clearly defined set of priorities and pursuing them relentlessly have been amongst the most common pieces of advice from ministers in our archive, and from Heseltine.

Keeping this set of priorities limited and properly targeted is even more important in the context of the demands that Brexit is placing on the Government.

Get the right information: “Find out what your department is doing”

Heseltine learned from his business experience the importance of knowing more about what is going on in a large, complex organisation. It allowed him to “set objectives right through the department” and monitor them closely.

Heseltine tried to institute a management information system in Whitehall during the Thatcher years to make this easier.

“The private sector will, in the most detailed way, produce an analysis of every aspect of what is going on and it is fully costed. There is nothing like that in the department world. I created such a system.”

Heseltine argues that proper management information and analysis can improve decisions and delivery – and this is supported by Institute for Government research. But even following the improvements that came with Lord Maude’s 2010 strengthening of the Non-Executive Directors (Neds) system in government, management information is still poor in Whitehall compared to other sectors.

For now, building a thorough understanding of what is happening in a department in order to make informed decisions does still require a lot of time and effort on the minister’s part. But it is worth the effort.

Engage: “It is the ability to bring people together”

New ministers should remember the value of consultation and relationship-building outside of Whitehall. As we have previously highlighted, making room for external challenges, especially from those who will be directly affected by a policy, is crucial in creating effective policies and successfully implementing them, since success will ultimately depend upon their response.

On regeneration and devolution, Heseltine recalled working with house builders, surveyors, private sector developers and Labour councillors to understand the problems and past attempts to fix them. Even more importantly, he made sure tenants were consulted before local authorities proposed plans and could receive central government funds to redevelop housing estates: 

“The local authority had to produce a plan showing what the tenants thought of the scheme…It meant that local authorities had to consult their tenants, a curious thing to do in many people’s minds…It was about communities, not just about derelict land.”

This engagement meant there was more support from tenants for the changes and more willingness to work with the authorities, making the regeneration policies more successful in the long run. 

Learn: “All my previous experience told me no, not again, you’ll never get there. Instead…”

Broad and long-term experience in government brings with it big benefits for policies. There can be good reasons for reshuffles but overly short periods in office often cause problems for the delivery of policies, weaken leadership of departments, and can damage government effectiveness overall.

Spending over 10 years as a minister in or shadowing one department, as Heseltine did, is very rare and valuable experience. To his brief, Heseltine brought an understanding of the past and experienced political leadership - two of the most common factors of successful policies.

Heseltine’s first question as a new Secretary of State after a seven-year hiatus from the Department of Environment was: “Where are those plans that I worked on for the South Bank?” By then the development of the South Bank had moved on, but he was able to transform these into a plan for the Docklands Development Corporation. With a better understanding of the challenges involved in regeneration and public-private partnerships, and time to follow the plans through, this time Heseltine was successful. The Corporation kick started the massive regeneration of London’s Docklands.

Lord Heseltine has continued to use his experience outside of ministerial office. He first championed a national industrial strategy in his years as a junior Trade and Industry Minister (between 1972 and 1974). Forty years on, he was still advising the Government, his wealth of experience leading on industrial strategy proving valuable to a new generation of Conservatives, many of whom had no experience of being in government.

These four lessons from Heseltine offer both new and experienced ministers a better shot at getting more done in government: Prioritise, put in the effort to get the right information, engage beyond Whitehall and learn from your own and others’ experience.

Further information

The Institute for Government's Ministers Reflect project today publishes four new interviews with Lord HeseltineHarriet HarmanBaroness Warsi and Baroness Stowell


I worked with Michael Heseltine three times - on the MINIS information system, which teased out how departmental resources were used; on planning policy when, as now, the challenge was delivering enough new homes; and running his daily Cabinet Committee on coordinating government policy announcements, when he was Deputy Prime Minister. One other lesson from all three experiences: present the whole story on a single page, while leaving clear choices about options. His partnership with the late planner Sir Peter Hall was truly creative, bringing the Eurostar route onto the north bank of the Thames as the key to transforming the Kings Cross area.