Working to make government more effective


There is much to learn from former ministers

The IfG's Ministers Reflect archive offers a rare insight into government.

Nick Clegg
Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is among the interviewees included in the IfG's exclusive archive.

A group of academics have written for the Institute for Government to explore how they use the IfG’s interviews with former ministers in their work. But the unique insights provided by the Ministers Reflect archive will also be of interest many people outside of academia too, says Sachin Savur

The Institute for Government has interviewed more than 150 government ministers about their time in office. As a group of academics have highlighted, our Ministers Reflect archive is a valuable resource to engage their students and bring the role of ministers to life. 

The archive brings to light ministers’ perspectives on the crises and scandals of the last 50 years

George Young’s (now Lord Young of Cookham) advice for new ministers was to “talk to your predecessor to find out where the bodies are buried”. Some might find it difficult to speak to a political opponent, but any minister would do well to learn from those who have done the job before and understand the challenges they encountered. 

Ministers Reflect offers a broad view of the major issues faced by successive governments, from Lord Howell’s experiences responding to energy crises in the 1970s to Lord Bethell’s description of No.10’s “post-election, ostrich-head-in-the-sand mentality” in the early stages of the Covid pandemic. Ministers can seek to emulate those who have successfully overcome obstacles – and avoid the mistakes of those who came before them.

The scope of the archive can also be helpful for policy makers. Those in the civil service and the think tank world looking for fixes to ‘wicked’ problems would benefit from reading our interviews to compare Michael Heseltine’s time in the housing brief with Nick Boles’, or Tessa Jowell’s work as public health minister with Steve Brine’s.

Ambitious politicians should think about how they want to do ‘ministering’

As shadow ministers hope to transition into government and aspirational parliamentary candidates seek to quickly rise up the ranks, they can look to previous ministers to get some inspiration about how they might do the job. They may want to invite the input of their officials by opening meetings like Robert Buckland, saying “This is my preliminary view. Am I wrong?”. Or they may want to leave their door open, as Johnny Mercer did, “so people could come by, pop their head in, have two minutes, ‘normalise’ the minister’s office.” 

There is no one way ministers have done the job: John Boswell and his colleagues at the University of Southampton used Ministers Reflect interviews to identify that some ministers regard the civil service as a potential challenge to be handled and optimised, while others focus on building shared objectives and mutual trust with their officials. Leighton Andrews’ new book Ministerial Leadership likewise draws on the archive to analyse how ministers do their roles and the key relationships involved in ‘ministering’. 

Civil servants can find out what ministers won’t tell them 

At a time when ministerial–civil service relations have been under strain, officials could find it useful to understand ministers’ frustrations with the government machine. Our archive provides unparalleled insight into recent postholders’ feelings on many of Whitehall’s entrenched tensions, with more nuance than found in press briefings complaining about an activist ‘blob’. 

Some criticisms will be familiar to many civil servants, such as Patricia Hewitt lamenting that “the department was very poor at working with other departments”. Others may be particular to a certain kind of minister – many who come from the business world, including George Freeman, find the civil service to work at a slower pace than their previous sector due to the “juggernaut politics” of Whitehall.

Helpfully, the archive also includes examples of how officials have strengthened their relationship with their ministers, and vice-versa. Steve Webb valued having experienced private secretaries with strong relationships across the department: “if I’d ruffled feathers [they] could quietly nip downstairs and smooth them”. Civil servants can take initiative in other ways – Iain Duncan Smith appreciated that his officials “absolutely got it, the stress and the strain” of the dispatch box and supported him through his appearances in parliament.

With opinion polls pointing to a change of government and a potential batch of new ministers with their own ideas about how to do the job, politicians, policy makers and academics all have something to learn from how government has been led in the recent past. Ministers Reflect offers a rare insight into this job that is like no other, told in ministers’ own words.

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