26 July 2012

According to a report in the press, Kris Murrin who is an adviser on personnel issues to the Prime Minister has been asking junior ministers what their development needs are over the next two to three years. If these weren't politicians, this would be a pretty normal question to ask and one which is regularly employed by line managers in appraisal conversations.

Yet the fact that it is politicians makes it newsworthy. There is no reason why this should be so - they are doing jobs like most people, albeit of a high profile kind, and will be judged on their performance. Also, like most organisations, government, is getting flatter in structure with less room to manoeuvre at the top. The difference in government, compared with large private and public sector organisations, is the absence of career, talent management and learning and development systems to support individuals.

Many politicians, if asked, do not think such systems are for them - they are in a different, 'special' category. For many, the fact that the electorate has chosen to them is good enough. Their election as MPs is sufficient to enable them to take on ministerial roles and help to run the country without any preparation whatsoever. This has been the pattern since the beginning of modern parliamentary democracy.

There have been some attempts over the last few years to help prepare oppositions for government but these have relied on the efforts of a few people who recognise the benefits that could flow from a properly structured training programme and mentoring scheme.

As part of its core activities the Institute for Government also provides continuing support to ministers. However, this is all very ad hoc. Our research on how to be an effective minister shows that ministers require an enormous capacity and resilience to be effective from day one in the various roles they perform – working as part of the executive, acting as policy makers and external advocates, and dealing with parliamentary, cross-departmental and party duties.

Of course, there are real differences between politicians’ and senior managers’ job environments. Political careers often end abruptly when the electorate decides it’s time for a change and unemployment comes as a short, sharp shock. Politicians are more like entrepreneurs, who have to market themselves and their ideas in order to stay in business. They are necessarily competitive with each other which means they are likely to develop enemies, both in their own party and on the opposition benches, who will seize on any perceived weakness and try to exploit it.

When most prime ministers reshuffle their ministers, they have to balance the promotions to maintain the right balance working in their party and people doing reasonably decent jobs can find themselves out of office. Therefore standard managerial techniques do not always translate naturally into the political arena. The Government should work towards introducing a more systematic way of having conversations with new MPs about the process of getting a first ministerial job. Ministers should also be developed to enable their achievements to be assessed and to identify their motivations about what they might want to do next.

With a coalition there is even less room for manoeuvre in terms of ministerial opportunities. However there is still some margin for movement. The prime minister needs someone whom he respects to take this on – it could be a whip whose job is to focus on ministerial movement or it could be a well respected ex minister with no further ministerial ambitions. The Institute is planning activities in the autumn to discuss the process of reshuffles, and the amount of time given to those new to ministerial life. Of course, in the best organisations they also carry out exit interviews but that’s for another day...