By Joshua.Chambers

14 Jun 2013

Very few jobs these days can be undertaken without any qualifications or tuition – but if you’re running the country, you may not even receive an induction. Joshua Chambers reports on the prospects for ministerial training.

You wouldn’t run a marathon without a lengthy period of training – but plenty of ministers run departments without any preparation whatsoever. As former Labour cabinet minister Jacqui Smith said in 2009: “When I became home secretary, I’d never run a major organisation. I hope I did a good job, but if I did it was more by luck than by any kind of development of those skills.”

Smith believes that training should be provided for newly-appointed ministers and secretaries of state, and she is not alone. Over the last decade, a string of reports from the Public Administration Select Committee have called for ministers to receive training; in 2011 the Institute for Government (IfG) called for better ministerial inductions; last month former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell called for more support for MPs promoted into government; and today the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has called for compulsory ministerial training. CSW has set out to understand what skills new ministers tend to lack, and how training and inductions can be improved to ensure better governance.

“There are very few jobs that do not require individuals to undertake training and development before being promoted,” observed O’Donnell, in a recent lecture at University College London. He called for training and development to prepare MPs for ministerial office, adding that “this would bring MPs into line with the reality of their constituents’ lives.”

Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis agrees. “You need ministers who have got the skills essential to animate the Whitehall machine; to create effective policy; to interact effectively with Parliament and external stakeholders,” he tells CSW. “It’s hit and miss at the moment whether new ministers have those skills. Far better not to leave it to chance, but to provide them with proper induction and training at the outset”.

Jacqui Smith adds another skill-set to Adonis’s list: cabinet ministers are “running a big budget,” she tells CSW. “It would be good to have a backgrounder in government finance.” Further, she says that management skills training could help secretaries of state run teams of ministers and officials, and more junior ministers might benefit from media training to help them communicate effectively.

Zoe Gruhn is director of leadership development at the IfG, and co-wrote the think tank’s 2011 report on ministerial training and support. She thinks ministers often lack the skills to prioritise. This is a problem, she says, “because the task is enormous; and if you’ve got someone who is an MP, they’ve got to balance the constituency demands as well.”

Currently, the availability of inductions and training for new ministers is very patchy; and where it does exist, it focuses on explaning government rather than on developing skills. Planning minister Nick Boles, appearing at the IfG last week to discuss his experiences, said: “My appointment was so weird. It took 36 hours after I was told I was going to be planning minister by the prime minister – and it was put into the newspapers – for anybody [from the department] to get in touch with me”. He added that “the reshuffle was old news by the time I actually turned up at the department.”

Once Boles was finally invited to his new department, he did receive an induction, explaining the department’s various functions and introducing him to his team and its major strands of work. It was “not very formal”, he noted, “and we didn’t have a sort of programme of events, which I suspect probably does happen more when you’re the incoming government.” There certainly wasn’t any training on how to be successful as a minister.

This beats the experience of Adonis, who says he didn’t receive any advice at all when he became a minister. “I’d been a special adviser before, so I did have some understanding of how Whitehall works,” he says. “I hadn’t worked in Parliament, so I had to pick that up as I went along.” Meanwhile, Smith “was massively fortunate in my first job in education to have fantastic private secretaries, who did basic ‘how government works’ training like what a submission is; how cabinet committees happen; how quickly things need to be turned around as a minister.” The nature of a minister’s introduction to government, she says, tends to depend on the quality of their private office.

Smith also received half a day’s training, along with other new ministers, which “was a bit more political.” This was conducted by former Labour ministers, and discussed “how to do the job; how to set priorities; how to make sure things you want to happen are happening and not being side-tracked by the civil service.”

She believes this kind of training should be provided to everyone appointed as a new minister, and the best advice is delivered by those who’ve previously served in those roles. “You need somebody who has been through it to tell you what to look out for, how to organise things.” A formal mentoring scheme would help new ministers, Adonis argues: he recruited his own mentors, such as former Tory education secretary Ken Baker, and they helped him understand how to make lasting reforms.

Preparation for ministerial office doesn’t have to wait until people have taken up the job. Boles said that “if you can do it with an Opposition before they come into government, that is the one time beforehand that you can actually make it happen. To do it mid-term [is] very hard.” In opposition, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude ran an ‘Implementation Unit’ to prepare for government; Gruhn says that the IfG “worked quite closely with the Conservatives.” The think tank pulled together would-be ministers to discuss potential scenarios, hear the experiences of Lord Heseltine and former cabinet secretaries, and understand how government had changed since they were last in office.

The IfG is currently working with the Labour Party to provide similar support to its own front-benchers, and has also offered it to the Liberal Democrats. But once a party is in government, the opportunities for training are limited: the Cabinet Office, says Gruhn, only provides new ministers with inductions on topics such as “propriety and ethics issues: issues to do with the special adviser code and the ministerial code.”

However, many ministers and potential ministers are sceptical about formal training. Gruhn notes that “there’s a perception that this role is unique, and they’ve been elected and are expected to hit the ground running. Any training is seen as a sign of weakness, which is nonsense.” She adds that “the fact that they’ve been elected doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to do it”. Adonis agrees, saying that “the election is about legitimacy; training is about capacity to do the job.”

Smith also thinks there’s some scepticism amongst politicians: “The suggestion is that it is a job like no other” – one in which training is of limited value. However, she says that this resistance “doesn’t necessarily imply that [new ministers] couldn’t benefit from some training – it depends on how it’s done with people. A minister that turns down the opportunity to do their job better would be a bit short-sighted.”

Yet currently, ministers risk criticism if they take up training. Tory MP Greg Hands lodged written questions in Parliament while Smith was home secretary, and found that she had been receiving leadership training. Hands criticised her for this, and it was splashed by the Daily Express newspaper. Smith responds that the press “can report it however they want to report it,” adding that training “doesn’t mean that you’re looking to get your boss’s job; nor does it mean that you’re not capable of the job you’ve got.”

Understanding whether you are performing well as a minister is another, related, problem faced by ministers. O’Donnell has called for clear objectives for ministers, while the IfG is seeking to run appraisal sessions for ministers to see how their colleagues rate them. Boles has agreed to go through one, and said: “I genuinely think it will be useful, because nobody gives you any feedback at all. Ever.”

However, O’Donnell has said that any formal move to give feedback to ministers would be hindered by fears that appraisals would be made public under the Freedom of Information Act, while Adonis believes that appraisals should only be performed by political colleagues – not officials – because of the potential for damaging leaks. Nonetheless, he says development and feedback is crucial to helping government ministers.

Ultimately, running a government is a gruelling task, and often there’s little time to check on progress. But democracy is a competitive process – and with more preparation and support, ministers will be more likely to run the full race.

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