Future secretaries of state must prepare and plan now

MPs with ambitions of being put in charge of a department must prepare, plan and set priorities now if they want to make an impact.  

But there is very little advice for new ministers on how to do the job, what happens upon appointment and the early decisions they will need to make. A new Institute for Government paper, Becoming Secretary of State, fills that gap.

Drawing on extensive interviews with former ministers, the report says that many secretaries of state will only have a short tenure in office, 18 months to two years if they are lucky. The break-neck speed and expectation that they hit the ground running leaves little time to adjust and consider how to do the job well.

The report says a future secretary of state must:

1. Devote time to preparations

MPs will not know what role they will get until it happens, but time spent thinking about what they want to achieve will be time well spent.

2. Have clear priorities

The civil service responds to clear instructions. Focusing on a few priorities will allow secretaries of state to make the most of their time in office.

3. Decide work practices

The private office runs the Secretary of State’s diary, office and ministerial boxes. Factoring in time for Parliament, constituency visits, home life and how the ministerial box should be prepared are all important things to consider.

4. Build a team

Secretaries of state have a say in appointing their political advisers, and in some cases their junior ministers. Being clear about who does what will shape how the department works, how policies get implemented and how the Secretary of State spends their time.

Tim Durrant, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government and report author, said:

“Being a secretary of state is one of the most demanding roles in government. You are responsible for the direction of your department, agreeing policy and leading a team of ministers.

“The role is an opportunity to shape government policy, but without proper preparation and prioritisation, a secretary of state can easily find themselves buffeted by events and unable to achieve what they want from their time in office.”


Notes to editors

  1. Full report can be found on our website.
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact press@instituteforgovernment.org.uk / 0785 031 3791.
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