Working to make government more effective


What made Michael Gove one of the most consequential ministers of recent times?

The next government should pay close attention to Michael Gove's approach to government.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove has held several ministerial offices in his time in government. He has announced he is stepping down at the 2024 general election.

As Michael Gove steps down from the House of Commons, Alex Thomas looks at the lessons to learn from how he worked in government

When Michael Gove announced that he would not be a candidate in the forthcoming election the reaction was as eclectic as the man himself. There was some of the critical commentary that always accompanies the end of a long and contentious political career, and Gove’s “had enough of experts” line continues to haunt him. But both supporters and opponents recognised that Gove has been one of the more consequential government ministers of the last 14 years.

The question of why Gove, rare among recent ministers, was seemingly able to grip the civil service and land some real change is one that should exercise an incoming government after the general election.

Different ministers and civil servants will have their own views on what worked, and what did not, about the way Gove managed the departments he led. I worked in Defra when Gove was secretary of state, and also observed his approach from the cabinet secretary’s office in the centre of government. So here, as a public service to new ministers, is an assessment of the Gove governing method.

Six lessons from the Michael Gove method

First, Gove transmitted a sense of fun and opportunity, showing officials and advisers that they had a chance to do and to change things. Gove made the departments he led places of energy and excitement – using journalistic verve to rally the troops, sell his agenda and persuade people that chronic and knotty problems could be addressed.

Second, he took the time to understand problems and opportunities before setting strategy and taking key decisions. That meant Gove arrived at refreshing and sometimes unexpected policy solutions – prison reform being a case in point – or built on previous Labour successes when the politically expedient thing might have been to drop them. But once he had established a position he urged speed, warning that “there is always less time than you think”.

Third, he was prepared to pick fights and, once they were picked, commit to them. He took on the Treasury in particular, spending political capital in rows over his priorities. He was also prepared to use the collective agreement process inside government to amend and block policies even beyond his area of responsibility. And outside government he was willing to be unpopular as education secretary to the extent that David Cameron felt that he had to move him to a less high profile job. 

Fourth, Gove’s approach evolved over time. At the Department for Education he had a clear agenda and pushed through his reform mission against external opposition. But having made public enemies in the education sector, at the Ministry of Justice, in Defra and the 'Levelling Up' department, Gove learnt from the problems his antagonistic approach had caused, and took a different tack. Here he was able to harness external support and co-opted potential opponents – like the National Farmer’s Union on food policy, or the Howard League for Penal Reform on justice policy. He used the external coalitions he built to back up his policy arguments with other departments (and sometimes inside his own department).

Fifth, in each department Gove managed to find under-appreciated corners of potential political or bureaucratic power, built them up and used them to pursue his objectives. Gove understood that he could leverage non-executive directors, appoint new civil service policy advisers and influence other appointments.

Sixth, Gove generally welcomed challenge, encouraged debate and wanted his political and civil service advisers to give honest advice. But he kept his cards close until reaching a decision – with close advisers sometimes unsure about which side of an argument would win out.

Getting the civil service on board is essential – but that does not mean avoiding arguments

The common theme is that, unlike some of his colleagues, Gove co-opted and persuaded. At times this would be via a strong disagreement, but he nevertheless brought enough people along with him. Particularly in his post-DfE ministerial life he stepped back from earlier attacks on the establishment “blob” and found ways to work with rather than against the system. But he had the dexterity not to be captured by it. Government reformers who succeed bring in their officials and lead them, rather than side-lining and sacking them.

One of the regrettable aspects of government in recent years is that there are too few joint successes that ministers and civil servants can celebrate together, building loyalty and commitment to shared objectives. And those that have been achieved have been overshadowed by briefing, leaks and gimmicks.

The next government should study Gove's methods – and learn from his mistakes

The biggest question mark over Gove’s legacy is whether, aside from at the Department for Education, he was in post for long enough to make much of a difference. His tenure at the MoJ, Defra and DLUHC was relatively short – time to set direction, but not long enough to embed as much long-lasting change as in DfE (with schools one of the few public services where the UK is doing comparatively well). An essential lesson for an incoming government is not to move ministers around too rapidly.

Gove also bent and stretched some of the conventions around impartiality and fair recruitment. The civil service can at times be too cautious, prioritising proper process over the best outcome, but the core tenets of an impartial civil service, competent and comfortable working for different political masters, are important and were at times undervalued by the Gove team.

And there remains a question about why Gove never rose to hold one of the great offices of state. Was he sufficiently trusted by successive prime ministers, and did they question his judgement and relationship with the media?

Michael Gove was and remains a controversial character, an active player in one of the most turbulent periods of recent British political history. It is unlikely that his contribution to public life is over. If there is a new government in office in the coming weeks they should learn from his method, and his mistakes, to achieve their own objectives. 

Related content