17 March 2017

One of the challenges facing ministers in departments is how to put aside rivalries and work as an effective team towards collective goals. In this blog, Ines Stelk looks at how they do it.

Ministerial teams are often hastily cobbled together after a reshuffle; they might not know each other well and some team members might be annoyed they are in the role at all. Unlike the corporate world, secretaries of state get handed a team rather than build it up – and their team might well include ambitious ministers who are after their job, or people with very different political views, even from within the same party. Politicians aren’t natural team players and some of the former business-people we’ve interviewed, including Lord O’Neill, were sceptical about their ability to pull together as a unit: “a lot of these characters are motivated by where they are and where they are going in the political game.”

On top of this, busy ministers working on distinct briefs don’t have much time for team-building. Some rarely even see each other. As ex-Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire commented: “we never had time, because we were travelling or busy, to sit down with each other. We always said ‘Let’s all have dinner’ and all that and we never did, so it was quite disconnected…”

But our Ministers Reflect interviews reveal that those ministerial teams with a strong team spirit felt they could perform more effectively in their roles and, as Jacqui Smith explained, present a united front: “Where there were departments where that [sense of team] hadn’t been built, it tended to feel fractured, well certainly from the outside it looked as if it was fractured in terms of people going off in their own direction.”

How to form an effective ministerial team

Secretaries of state

Establishing a cohesive team dynamic and building a sense of trust among the ministerial team should be a focus for new secretaries of state. As Margaret Beckett highlighted: "Everything you do is achieved through teamwork." Cabinet ministers need to trust their junior ministers to get things done – if not they will end up being unable to focus on setting the direction and providing strategic guidance for the department. There is a lot a secretary of state can do to establish an effective ministerial team: 

  • Get the right team in place: Although secretaries of state don’t typically have a lot of say as to who is in their team, there is some scope for influencing the Prime Minister ahead of a reshuffle. As Patricia Hewitt advises: ‘You may or may not get a choice of junior ministers but my experience of that was you were allowed one discard."
  • Don’t hog all the work: Junior ministers will thank their secretary of state for allowing them to carve out their own priorities and be trusted to get on with things, rather than being micromanaged. In the words of Margaret Beckett: "Be fair to your team, don’t hog all the work, don’t hog all the limelight. And give people a chance to build up experience, because they are the future for your party and for future governments…" Competent junior ministers can be especially useful for doing the heavy lifting in Parliament and for overseeing detailed policy implementation.
  • Establish individual relationships with junior ministers: Having a sense of what strengths and skills individual ministers bring to the team – whether knowledge of a brief, good media or parliamentary skills – pays off. Knowing junior ministers’ interests and ambitions is important, as Andrew Mitchell told us: ‘The thing is to know what they are good at and let them get on with it and actually encourage them.’ Jacqui Smith found that an encouraging boss helped morale: “One of the first things he [David Blunkett] did was he asked us to write our ideas for interesting policy ideas that we had and thought about them seriously...”
  • Have regular, meaningful meetings: Most junior ministers we interviewed mentioned the usefulness of regular, if possible face-to-face contact with their secretaries of state and the rest of the ministerial team, both informally and through meetings. “I’d now say…Please, Secretary of State, have a meeting with your ministers that is inviolable, every Monday, that is never changed, just you and your ministers where you talk through things”, recalled Ed Vaizey.
  • Don’t neglect management: Secretaries of state also need to manage poor performance and deal with routine management issues. John Whittingdale, for example, talked about the sensitivities of dealing with one of his junior minister’s maternity leave.

Junior ministers

Being a junior minister can be tough: you don’t have the authority and attention of the Secretary of State does and can be overruled by them, or given all the work they have no interest in. “Departmental civil servants, in my experience, don’t really pay any attention to anyone except the secretary of state…”, observed Oliver Letwin. “If there’s a junior minister that matters, the junior minister matters because the junior minister has the confidence of the secretary of state.”

Although “abundant reserves of charm” [Alan Duncan] can never hurt, ministers had other tips on developing positive relationships with their secretary of state and wider ministerial team:

  • Know your role in the team: Though many ministers are keen to carve out and focus on particular areas of a portfolio, they should be aware how these fit in with their secretary of state’s priorities and the given circumstances. Kitty Ussher reflected on her experience of being a minister during the 2008 financial crisis: “you need to have a lot of self-awareness, I think, to work out what your role in that is and how you can best contribute."
  • Keep the Secretary of State informed: Regularly updating the Secretary of State helps keep relationships harmonious. As Liam Byrne explained: “The key to that relationship is always no surprises… And forward guidance on what you’re doing. I got into the habit of writing a weekly note to my boss…” Elevating problems to the boss is better done sooner than later, says former Defence Secretary (and now Trade Secretary) Liam Fox: “If you’ve got a problem with it or you’re unsure, come and tell me. Don’t wait until it’s a problem, a big problem.”
  • Use special advisers: Time with the Secretary of State can be hard to come by. By working with the Secretary of State’s allies, including their private office and their special advisers (a useful “sounding board”), junior ministers can test out ideas and build support, while minimising pressures on the Secretary of State’s diary.
  • Reach out to fellow junior ministers, including in other departments: Building strong relationships with other ministers can help by-pass lengthy departmental communication processes. Lord Freud, for instance, worked with other junior ministers to drive through Universal Credit, including David Gauke at the Treasury: “…we would meet every quarter and we just drove that process through. That was actually, funnily enough, one of the most important relationships in terms of getting a major reform through in government.”
Further information

The Institute for Government offers advice, away-days and training for ministers, and those working with them, on how to develop strong teams. Contact Daniel Thornton, Programme Director, for more details: daniel.thornton@instituteforgovernment.org.uk

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