05 September 2012

Paul Deighton is about to discover how different being a minister is from being an investment banker and a highly successful organiser of the Olympics

Paul Deighton is the latest in a distinguished line of GOATs brought in to provide business and delivery expertise for the Government. The future Lord Deighton — as he will become when he takes over in January from Lord Sassoon as unpaid Commercial Secretary to the Treasury — has had a very successful career as a former Goldman Sachs partner and, for nearly seven years, as chief executive of the 2012 London Organising Committee. As such he is no stranger to the workings of government. But being a minister is more complicated and success is even more elusive.

The Institute for Government has done a lot of work on the role of outsiders in government, notably in our report last year, ‘The Challenge of Being a Minister’ which I co-authored with Zoe Gruhn and Liz Carolan. Our view is that at least half a dozen outsiders should be appointed as ministers to broaden the range of expertise, experience and project management capacity of ministerial teams.

However, GOATs/outsiders have had a mixed record, and generally short duration. First, the skills needed to be a company chairman or a chief executive officer in the public or private sectors are very different from those required to be a minister. Second, the political nous and acumen needed to be a successful minister are much harder to predict or to develop. They are more nature than nurture. Third, political life is all consuming, even obsessive, and few people, even if they have been career politicians all their lives, ever master the skills needed to persuade colleagues and to master Parliament.

The most successful GOATs tend to have very specific briefs, often of a time-limited nature, such as Lord Carter on reviewing digital Britain and Lord Darzi on the future of the NHS, both, in effect, conducting external reviews as ministers. The more nebulous the brief, the greater the chances of frustration, as Lord Simon found working on European policy where the lead from the top was ambiguous, and often contradictory.

Paul Deighton’s new responsibilities are very wide-ranging — taking forward the National Infrastructure Plan, including overseeing the new private finance initiative model and UK Guarantees scheme. David Cameron talked grandly of the appointment proving that the Government ‘means business in terms of delivering infrastructure projects and economic revival’. That assumes that the answers to these problems are primarily technocratic and managerial—where, of course, Paul Deighton’s expertise and experience are highly relevant. But many of the difficulties are political, both within the coalition over deregulatory measures and with vested interests. David Cameron and George Osborne need to be clear what is realistic for Paul Deighton to do and what is for them to sort out.

However, outsiders who become ministers also have to remember that they now have political and parliamentary responsibilities, and cannot stay just technocrats. Prime ministers, who invariably know virtually nothing about the Lords, practically never tell GOATs that they will have, often time-consuming, duties in answering questions and taking legislation through the Lords. Some new ministers, such as Lord Sassoon, adapt and are effective in the Lords, others do not and offend peers. Lords ministers need to make an effort to make themselves available and accountable, not just to fellow peers but also to the Commons.

Paul Deighton has one advantage, time, since he does not take on his new responsibilities for four months. He has plenty to do in the meantime in completing his work on the Olympics and Paralympics — and also reflecting on the lessons learnt (the subject of a major IfG project now). But he should spare a little time to talk to previous GOATs and to be given assistance to make the adjustment from his current life to his future political one. After all, a central lesson of the UK’s sporting success in the Olympics and Paralympics is that everything depends on meticulous preparation, training and continuous development.