Junior ministers do the bulk of the heavy lifting in Parliament, with secretaries of state making cameo appearances at the start and the end of a bill. But forthcoming Institute for Government research suggests that junior ministers also play an important role in policy implementation. We looked at the London Challenge school improvement programme, the Fuel Poverty Strategy, Sure Start children’s centres and automatic enrolment into pensions.
These case studies all show that the Secretary of State typically provided political cover and initial impetus, but the grind of driving the policy forward, chasing progress and making change happen fell largely to their junior ministers who tend to play at least one of three roles:
- Convenor: Junior ministers brought and kept people outside of government on board. For instance in the case of the London Challenge, Stephen Twigg, then Minister for London Schools, managed relations with the London boroughs which were singled out for action. Where relationships matter, particularly with elected local politicians, there are limits to what civil servants can effectively do. More recently, Steve Webb, the pensions minister, has worked directly with industry to ensure regulations on automatic enrolment into pensions are as effective as possible.
- Advocate: Junior ministers also added political momentum to implementation. This was the role of ministers in the successful scheme to build 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres across the country in the 2000s. Ministers like Beverley Hughes both built up enthusiasm in localities about creating centres, while also holding the central delivery team to account for the pace of roll-out.
- Internal champion: Junior ministers also acted as internal champions within the department – making sure that the risks of loss of focus and conflicting priorities were managed. Thus in the case of the London Challenge, the Minister for London Schools made sure that other national policies like the ‘academisation’ programme were deployed to support not deflect the work of the London Challenge team.
Good junior ministers who have stuck with a policy for some time have knowledge of the detail and of why decisions and compromises have been made, hold strong relationships with people outside government, and have a keen awareness of and ability to manage the politics of implementation. Changes and churn can destabilise this. To date, junior ministers under this government have benefited from some measure of stability. Indeed, our research shows that the implementation of automatic enrolment into pensions has benefited since the election in having an unusually durable pensions minister in Steve Webb. But churn has still been higher than desirable. For instance, 60% of junior ministers in the Ministry of Justice and 50% of junior ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions have been in post for less than a year. And in the Department for Communities and Local Government, we are now onto our third housing minister of this Parliament.
So what does that mean for David Cameron? The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee last September that he wants to concentrate on “how we deliver in 2014 and in 2015. I want that to be the focus of my ministers and of senior civil servants.” Given this, too much movement amongst junior ministers with less than 12 months to go might well be ill-advised. But the political temptation will be once again to freshen up the faces at the top. Any new minister has a big learning curve to climb – and if moved into post in July 2014, not long to climb it. The Prime Minister needs to balance the desire to refresh with the need to hang on to those who are at the forefront of overseeing his key reforms – whether in DWP, in Justice, in the key “growth areas” of housing and planning – and send the message that doing a good job on implementation now will bring rewards in a future parliament.