Understanding government is not always easy, either for people on the inside or those outside who want to influence it. The new IfG Academy offers support to those who want to make government better, explains Tim Durrant
It isn’t always easy to understand how government works, what being a minister or an official actually entails, or how decisions are taken and policies are made. Indeed, IfG research shows that both those inside the government machine and those on the outside can struggle to make sense of how it works and how to get things done
So this week the Institute for Government has formally launched the IfG Academy, a new hub for all our work supporting ministers, civil servants, MPs, academics, businesses, charities and others who want to understand government better and get it to work more effectively.
Ministers don’t always know what they can and cannot do in the role
Being appointed as a government minister is an important moment for a politician – they can now use the power of the role to make changes and pursue their priorities. But many of the former ministers we have spoken to recall an initial feeling of uncertainty over what they can and cannot do when the start in the job. As Caroline Spelman, environment secretary at the start of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition explained, “the thing that surprised civil servants is that we as ministers, particularly me with no ministerial experience, didn’t actually know what was required of us.”
The civil service is generally very good at bringing ministers up to speed with their policy responsibilities, but less good at explaining what exactly the role entails, and what ministers are able to ask for. And some ministers are suspicious of the civil service, not wanting to be ‘captured’ by officialdom and keen to make sure that they can do things the way they want to.
Former ministers describe how they began their government roles without knowing that they could ask for meetings to be made shorter, or that they could instruct civil servants to provide advice in a format of their choosing. This is where the IfG Academy comes in – we understand how government works but are not in the system, so we are able to help ministers (and their special advisers and private office teams) to understand how the system works, and how they can use it to get things done.
Government is difficult to understand from the outside too
The IfG also works with academics, charities and businesses to help them understand how government works and how to best get their messages heard. Our research has shown how government and academia are two very different worlds, with different ways of thinking about problems and communicating solutions. And we know that explanation is needed – for example, people who attend our seminars are frequently mystified by the presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords or the problems caused by excessive ministerial turnover. We help demystify what actually happens inside government and parliament, including who is responsible for what, how different organisations work together and who the right people are to speak to about specific issues.
To help make government more accessible and comprehensible, we also help those outside government understand the context that ministers and civil servants work in, the incentives and constraints they face and the way they communicate. We do this because we think a more open government, which draws on more points of view and more external evidence, will be a more effective government that makes better decisions.
Government should get better at explaining itself and improving how things are done
Of course, the IfG cannot help everyone who wants to know more about how government works, whether they are inside the machine or not. We know that the civil service is taking the question of skills in government – for both ministers and civil servants – seriously. Similarly, there are many initiatives inside government to ensure more external voices, from business, academia and elsewhere, are properly represented, and different organisations outside government thinking about the skills and characteristics needed to be an effective member of the government, whether a politician or a civil servant.
Government’s focus on improving understanding of how it works is very welcome, and it should continue to explain to people, both those inside and those outside, and encourage them to think about how things can be made better. But when even some people at the very heart of government are confused, it is clear that more help is needed. The IfG Academy is here to help ministers, civil servants and outsiders make changes to improve how they do things, how they communicate, and how government works for everyone.