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Summary

Ministers Reflect in universities

More and more academics are using our Ministers Reflect interviews in their work.

Cardiff University
Cardiff University, Wales.

The Institute for Government's Ministers Reflect archive is becoming a core resource in universities. Professor Leighton Andrews (Cardiff University) and a team comprising Professor John Boswell, Dr Daniel Devine (both University of Southampton), Dr Jessica Smith (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Jack Corbett (Monash University) explain how they are using the series in their teaching, research and in professional development.

Teaching

Leighton Andrews writes:

Since 2017, I have taught a postgraduate module for politics students titled Government from the inside – the view from the Minister’s Office. The module traces the life of a minister from appointment to leaving office. At every stage, the Ministers Reflect archive has proved valuable, illustrating the work of ministers as they report on their different trajectories – how they are appointed, determine their priorities, and handle scrutiny in the chamber or committees, and from the media. All of these aspects of their role are illuminated by the interviews and give students real insights into ministerial work.

I am fortunate to have been an interviewee myself, as a former minister in the Welsh government between 2007 and 2016, and I also interviewed the Institute for Government’s former director, Sir Peter Riddell, who explained for the benefit of my students how the archive came to be set up. I ensure that students are acquainted with the archive and many use it in their end of term essays.

Boswell et al. write:

We have used Ministers Reflect to help ‘bring to life’ methods training for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In our experience, students typically dread these modules. The archive contains ample material to pique the interest. Even the most reticent student cannot help but enjoy Ken Clarke’s colourful account of kicking out ‘apparatchiks from No. 10’, Jo Swinson’s jokes about the dilemmas of appropriate footwear, or Tim Loughton’s tongue-in-cheek recalling of his ‘jelly baby’ psychological experiment. Ministers Reflect  proves a treasure trove for students learning the craft and fun of data analysis, with potential for mixing both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Research

Leighton Andrews writes:

This year (2024) I have published a book, Ministerial Leadership that uses the Ministers Reflects archive as a key source. I was pleased to talk about the book at a seminar at the Institute for Government in November 2023. The book draws on my teaching and on my own experience, to give an analytical view of ministerial practice. The book considers how ministers come to be appointed, how they handle their early months in office, how they relate to civil servants in their department and in the private office, how they see their role, how they draw on their other roles – as parliamentarians, party activists and family members – to help maintain their focus and impose some discipline on what is still today a job without much definition. The book looks at their role in decision taking, their relationships with other ministers and the centre of government, the various performance spaces in which they have to act as ministers, and identifies a growing emphasis by ministers in all parties on the importance of delivery as much as policy-making – something which has real implications for the relationship between ministers and civil servants.

Boswell et al. write:

We recently published an academic paper that zeroes in on an important area of focus in Leighton’s book too – how ministers ‘learn on the job’. 4 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/padm.12994  The paper stems from an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funded-project, and builds on an earlier report we produced and presented for the IfG on ministerial management styles. Our emphasis in the academic paper was on exploring and unpacking how ministers get to grips with the challenges of their unique role. Our analysis uses Ministers Reflect to identify systematic patterns in how ministers approach the job, which are influenced by a multitude of factors including MPs’ professional and personal backgrounds.

In the paper, we identify six ministerial ‘learning styles’: creative, incremental, managerial, instrumental, instinctive, and risk-averse. We hope insights can provide support for ministerial training. Incoming ministers have very little training, and no formalised training; as our evidence shows, ministers are expected to ‘get on with it’. Yet by providing a typology and understanding of how ministers learn, we take a step towards assisting ministers and their staff get to grips with the job with a nuanced account of the support structures needed to help ministers cope with the variety of demands they face.

Professional Development

Leighton Andrews writes:

I have worked with public servants from a variety of backgrounds on several courses at Cardiff University, and one of the areas I discuss in detail is the difference of working in a political environment. Experienced public service professionals are interested in what drives politicians and their behaviour in office, and the interviews – and my learning from them – provide a great introduction to classroom discussions. Public service workers at all levels want to understand how the political environment shapes their working lives, and learning what experienced politicians have said is of great benefit.

Boswell et al write:

We hope that our insights might inform practices of preparing and on-boarding ministers and supporting their private offices – especially with an impending change of government in the air. But there are also other potential connections between research and professional development we have been exploring. In particular, Devine and Smith are leading some research that aims to expand on our initial qualitative insight with sophisticated new tools and methods of text-as-data analytics. Towards the end of Smith’s IAA-funded secondment to the IfG, she and Devine led a professional development session with the IfG’s research staff to introduce these tools and showcase their possible applications.

Are you using the Ministers’ Reflect interviews in your university? Let us know.

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