‘Get used to knowing less than everyone else’: Ex-ministers share tips on starting in a new role

Former Cabinet Office minister also reveals how they were accidentally offered two jobs in a reshuffle
Estelle Morris. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

07 Aug 2023

Former ministers give their perspective on how to make the best start in a new role, in the first of a new series of podcasts on how to be a minister, released by the Institute for Government this week. Here, we pick some of the best insights from the episode.

Give teams a chance

New ministers should give every civil service team a chance, according to ex-business secretary Andrea Leadsom. “The civil servants will always prepare a briefing for a new minister. And some ministers don't bother to really look at that. They just sort of say, ‘Oh, yes, I'm now a sitting minister so I'm interested in this and that and don't bother with the rest.’,” she says.
“But actually, I think a really good thing to do is to go through the entire portfolio, because there might be things in it that actually you think, wow, that's interesting, I did not know that. And that could become one of the things that you want to focus on.” Leadsom adds that it is “really important” to “give every civil service team the chance."

Make the most of the first day

Former education secretary Estelle Morris recalls her promotion to education secretary in 2001. “The civil service at senior level changed at the same time. So although I've been in the department, I was taking on a more senior job. And equally strange enough, David Normington, who was the permanent secretary, when I was secretary of state, had been the director of schools. So we'd both moved up together. So we were both new in the job.” Morris adds: “So we had both the continuity and the stability and strength that gives you and I think we'd both agree looking back that that meant we underestimated the lack of experience we'd both got at those senior posts."

Morris also paid tribute to departmental officials for their ability to quickly brief new ministers, saying "the civil service is very good at giving you a programme, getting you to talk to the key people.”

While civil servants are well-practiced at taking new ministers through their first steps in office, IfG research assistant Beatrice Barr noted that incoming ministers should also make use of that first day to set “clear expectations with their civil servants".

This means talking to “the people who run your office about how you'd like to work, to make sure that they understand all of the demands that you're facing, that will affect how you'd like to spend your time.” Barr adds: “So make sure they know if your constituency is far away, for example, and you're going to have to leave early on Thursday at the end of your first week to dash back across the country."

Hit the ground running even though you know less than everyone else

Another who features in the podcast is ex-Scotland secretary Jim Murphy. He says that, as a minister, “you have got to get used to the fact that in almost every meeting, you know least about the subject. But in every one of those meetings, you are being asked to apply a decision. And that takes a little while to get used to."

Murphy recalls his first ministerial role in 2015, when he was called by Tony Blair and offered a job on his way to taking his daughter to school. He was called again by Blair when he was picking his daughter up from school and offered a different job. It was “too weird to be true” and left Murphy in a quandary on what he described as a “chaotic, crazy day.” He said that Blair “hadn't realised he'd offered me another job in the morning…and so I'd been offered two jobs, both of which were quite interesting.”

Murphy proceeded to call the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, for advice. “She said ‘look, which of the two jobs would you like?’ I said ‘I'd like to go to the Cabinet Office’ and she said ‘on the condition that you never tell anyone what the other job was, then you can go to the Cabinet Office.’”

The ex-Scotland secretary laughs as he adds: “I'm not going to say what that second job was, because there's a Labour minister who was absolutely delighted that they got my cast offs.”

On a more serious note, Murphy shares his tips on how new ministers can hit the ground running: "I would recommend that, first of all, they build up really strong relationships with their perm sec, that they find a way of communicating regularly with their secretary of state.” He adds: “Alongside that, within a week or so have identified your priorities. Get secretary of state sign-off on your priorities and then talk to your permanent sec about the resource implications of your priorities."

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