Working to make government more effective


Being a minister isn’t easy – but learning about the role will help

Ministers can be better at their jobs if they take time to think about their work and seek out support.

Whitehall sign
Leading Whitehall departments can be a daunting task: ministers will do well to learn from their predecessors.

Rumours about an impending reshuffle have Westminster speculating about who might be promoted – and no doubt No.10 strategists are mulling over which team of ministers would most ably serve Rishi Sunak in the run-up to a general election. Keir Starmer meanwhile has recently reshuffled the Labour pack, lining up a shadow team which he hopes will make the transition into government should Labour win that election. 

Understanding the work that ministers do, and how they can be more effective in their roles, should be at the forefront of both Sunak and Starmer’s minds – and anyone who is or hopes to be a government minister. 

On Wednesday 1 November, the Institute for Government hosted a one-day conference on the role of ministers in government. Here’s what we learned about how ministers can make sure they can be better at their jobs. 

Ministers need to develop self-awareness

The Institute’s interviews with former ministers give them a chance to reflect on their ministerial careers after they have left office. But a key theme throughout the conference was that ministers should be more aware of their strengths and weaknesses while they are still in post. This is especially true because ministers receive very little training, if any, and are left to learn on the job. 

With packed diaries and countless demands on their time, ministers have little  space to step back and think about how they could improve the way they work. Former permanent secretary Una O’Brien suggested that there should be more opportunities for new ministers across government to come together to reflect on what they have learned in their first year in office. 

For cynics, this might evoke visions of an away day from The Thick of It – but Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, pointed out that it would be highly unusual for senior leaders in a large private sector organisation to have little contact with one another. Being a minister is a unique job, and they should make time to think about how their work is going and swap notes with their peers.

Ministers Reflect: What is it really like leading a government department?

Watch all the discussions from our one-day conference exploring the day-to-day realities of being a minister and how to do the job well.

Watch the conference
Dame Una Obrien, Cath Haddon, Chloe Smith and Alex Thomas on stage at the IfG

“Don’t occupy the post – do something with it”

A ministerial career can be all too brief, so setting objectives and working out what success looks like is key. Former minister Leighton Andrews reflected that ministers can easily lose sight of what they want to achieve when reacting to constantly evolving events or during a media storm.

Special advisers can support ministers in thinking more strategically, as journalist Marie Le Conte highlighted – though she added the caveat that ministers need to choose special advisers with the right kind of experience, rather than appointing “a team of three men called Simon who are 26 and a half” who had all worked at party headquarters. 

Private offices can be another useful source of support to help ministers make the most of their tenure. Some of this might involve the day-to-day – former minister Chloe Smith recalled one official finding out her usual sandwich order in advance of her arrival – but private office is also able to take initiative by offering opinions and advice to add value to ministers’ decision making.

Team work makes the dream work

In each government department, ministers work together to achieve their goals. But not all teams pull in the same direction. Former Labour minister Dame Angela Eagle suggested that junior ministers often get little credit for stopping bad things from happening, while secretaries of state can be prone to ‘stealing’ positive initiatives from their colleagues. 

Chloe Smith, who has served at every ministerial rank, told us that co-operation is key because there is too much work for a single minister to deal with. Secretaries of state can set the direction for the department, while delegating effectively to their junior ministers. 

Ultimately, the prime minister needs to consider any potential tension when choosing their ministerial teams, as does the leader of the opposition. This might help reduce squabbling within departments – and, crucially, the need for constant reshuffles.

The job of a minister is demanding, complicated and unpredictable, but there are ways to prepare and opportunities to improve. Learning from their predecessors, comparing notes with ministerial colleagues and using their official and political support to establish their priorities are all ways ministers can set themselves up to succeed in their roles. A huge amount is expected of government ministers but, as our conference showed, ministers are only human and they need help to make the most of their time in office. Civil servants, the public, and ministers themselves would do well to remember that.

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