02 July 2015

Being a politician is hard work, but becoming a minister and getting to grips with Whitehall is a whole other challenge. Yet there is remarkably little support and advice in place to help them manage this transition.

Nehal Davison shares some insights from a new Institute for Government report that outlines what works when it comes to running a programme to support ministers in their new roles.

Ministerial continuity characterises the post-election landscape in Whitehall – with 12 out of 19 Whitehall departments still being run by the same secretary of state. But one level down, it’s a completely different picture. Sixty per cent of minister of state (MoS) and parliamentary under-secretary (PUSS) posts have been filled by someone new following the election.

Some of these new ministers have come from another role in the same department, but others have never worked in the department before, let alone in government. Many will no doubt adjust to their new roles and responsibilities with time, but the sheer enormity of the job shouldn’t be underestimated: getting on top of a new policy brief, managing a new team of civil servants and advisers, dealing with round-the-clock media scrutiny, making speeches, meeting constituents and stakeholders, answering parliamentary questions and steering legislation through Parliament, among countless other tasks.

However, there is remarkably limited support available for ministers making this transition. One told the Institute for Government, ‘I had no idea of what was involved. I had to learn to be a minister, moving from decision to decision, seeing how they get made.’ Induction, ongoing development and regular appraisals – now the norm across the civil service, business and charities – remain rare in Westminster.

More training cannot prepare ministers for all the challenges of office. But the Institute has consistently argued that some form of preparation and development is essential to help ministers clearly communicate priorities, forge effective relationships and build well-functioning teams. This ultimately enables them to translate policy commitments into real changes on the ground. The challenge for ministers lies in knowing where to go for this type of support and then finding the time for it, given the many other pressing demands on their time.

This is why the Institute for Government offers support to leading politicians – both in government and opposition. In practice, this involves structured self- and team-development opportunities – such as 360-degree appraisals and team away days – that help ministers to reflect on how they are doing the job away from the rough and tumble of Westminster life.

Our new report reflects on ‘what works’ when it comes to running a programme to support ministers develop in their roles. We have identified some key steps – right from clarifying programme goals, through to tailoring the intervention and investing in aftercare.

Although many of these steps might appear obvious, the real insight lies in how to take them in the context of Whitehall and Westminster. For example, the process of stimulating interest in, and designing, a programme of support for politicians is in many ways vastly different to any other leadership development programme. The relative absence of formal line management, HR and appraisal systems in UK politics means there is no obvious person or function to approach to discuss the development needs of politicians.

Politicians also appear to have fewer incentives than leaders from other sectors to make time for developing themselves and their teams. Managerial skills – that is, how effective they are in getting the best out of their junior ministers and officials – count for little when it comes to promotions: as Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, put it, ‘the appointment of a Cabinet is politics, not HR’. Identifying those who might be interested in the first place, making a connection and building enough trust to encourage politicians to take up our support was a big job in itself.

The Institute for Government is committed to the ambitious agenda of developing politicians and, since the general election, has continued to offer inductions and other development opportunities to new ministers. We hope the paper helps those working in political parties, the civil service or in professional development to contribute to this work so that greater preparation and continuing development for ministers becomes the norm, rather than the exception.