09 December 2015

The Institute for Government has launched Ministers Reflect, an online archive that records – in former ministers’ own words – what it takes to be an effective government minister, together with the challenges they face, and what more can be done to support them. Nicola Hughes describes the project’s aims.

Along with my colleagues Peter Riddell and Jen Gold, I spent most of this summer going back and forward between the Institute and the Houses of Parliament, recorder in hand, to interview former government ministers. We’ve conducted over 30 interviews so far and it’s been fascinating to learn more about the challenges, highs and lows of being in office from those who’ve done the job.

Why interview all these ex-ministers? As we’ve highlighted previously, there is a lack of understanding about what the ministerial role actually involves and how to do the job effectively, leaving new ministers with little support or advice. As one of our interviewees Liam Fox put it, “this is a really good exercise, because certainly talking to colleagues, those who had been thrown in at the deep end, they spend so long finding their own feet it’s difficult for them to set a clear direction for the department. And by the time you do you can be quite far down the line of something you don’t really want to do.

The Ministers Reflect archive is intended to fill that gap; it is an oral history resource for current future political leaders, civil servants and researchers.

What we found

At yesterday's launch event for the archive, we highlighted a number of key themes from the interviews:

  • Entering office: the complexities of coalition government contributed to a somewhat chaotic appointments process and created confusion as policies prepared in opposition had to be renegotiated. Those ministers who felt best prepared for their new roles had either shadowed their ministerial brief in opposition, worked in large organisations, or had a previous spell in a department.
  • Getting things done: ministers highlighted high staff turnover within the Civil Service, poor succession planning, and a lack of understanding of Parliament among civil servants as key obstacles to turning ideas into action. But private offices and special advisers provided essential support. Ministers highlighted the need to establish clear priorities, enable effective challenge, proactively engage the centre, and have junior ministers focus on delivery.

Top tips on ministerial effectiveness

We asked interviewees what advice they would give to new ministers. The most popular answers were: to have a clear set of priorities that are effectively communicated and relentlessly pursued; to invest in relationships with parliamentary colleagues; and to recognise that public image matters to career prospects. They also emphasised the need to take advice from predecessors, take staff engagement seriously and stay on top of your brief.

One of the panellists, Jeremy Browne, certainly saw the chaotic side of the appointments process. He received his appointment phone call from the Deputy Prime Minister while in a supermarket car park and neither of them were quite sure whether Jeremy would be a minister of state or Parliamentary Under-Secretary, or indeed what the difference was.

Another, George Young, also lamented the lack of career development and planning in appointments – time in the Treasury or Whips’ Office is useful training for ministers and when making reshuffles: “ideally you want round pegs in round holes… but other considerations impinge”. He also spoke of the lack of support for ministers who have had, for whatever reason, a tough time of it – ministers are after all human, with constituencies, families and personal problems alongside an incredibly demanding day job.

Discussion also highlighted how different it is being a minister in one department to another and the fact that the skills needed to succeed in the role change over time and according to the Prime Minister’s style. It would be naïve to imagine corporate-style “HR-ification”, as Jeremy called it, of the ministerial role. Nonetheless, it was clear that good preparation and taking top tips from people who have done the job are crucial – findings that we will feed into our wider work supporting ministers to lead.

What next?

This is just the start of the project – over the coming months we’ll be widening our pool of interviewees and adding more transcripts to the archive. We’ll also be publishing a series of blogs with more detailed analysis. In the meantime, you can explore the archive.

Further information

Contact us with your thoughts and feedback at ministers.reflect@instituteforgovernment.org.uk