Secretaries of state are responsible for multibillion-pound budgets. But with no financial training offered before being handed the books and a lack of wiggle room amid resource constraints and existing spending commitments, new ministers may be in for a shock.
One former minister, Justine Greening, says the era of expecting people to run multibillion-pound government departments with "no training" should come to an end.
Appearing on the penultimate episode of the IfG’s Becoming a minister podcast series, the ex-education secretary said that rather than coming into politics with all the skills needed to run a department, most ministers are people who have "coincidentally done totally different jobs and been brilliant at them in civilian life".
"Then suddenly we expect them to run a multibillion-pound, multi-agency department with no training," added Greening, a chartered accountant and former economic secretary to the Treasury.
In her view, "there's a lot of financial management, an 'MBA-light', that would really benefit most incoming ministers just to simply know what they should expect from civil servants and to be able to have a framework to think about how they wanted to be able to run the department."
Estelle Morris, who was a teacher before she entered politics, admitted that she struggled to get to grips with the financial aspects of her role as education secretary in Tony Blair’s government.
She recalled never having had a job where she had to manage “huge budget sheets”. Preparing for the spending review and stocktakes with the Treasury “was one of the most demanding things I had to do” where she “was learning as I went along”.
The podcast also featured IfG researcher Grant Dalton, who remarked that new ministers are confronted with the challenge of realising “how little control you have over spending” due to spending review decisions or commitments made by predecessors. “It can be very difficult for new ministers to actually have much wiggle room and much autonomy in how budgets are spent. And that can be quite a shock to new ministers," he said.
This point was echoed by Dame Una O'Brien, a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health, who noted that there was often very little money available – if any – “to do new and different things”.
“I think that's quite a hard thing to get your head around when you're sitting on top of so much money," she said.
O’Brien stressed the importance of ministers “being on top of the numbers” and “putting some very hard questions into the department to make sure that there aren't any 'awkwardnesses' sitting behind the spreadsheets that you need to know about".
Hard choices have to be made in the current climate, she said. “We are in a period of time currently of retrenchment. And I think the only way of dealing with that is you have to stop doing stuff," she explained.
O’Brien claimed that “one of the most difficult conversations senior officials ever have with ministers” is explaining that finite resources mean that some things have to be stopped to enable others to be done.
Ministers need to be decisive and prepared to prioritise, she argued. “I would love it if ministers generally could get better at closing things down, finishing programmes and saying ‘we are no longer going to do those things, in order to free up resources to do some new things'. That's the way that ministers could be most helpful."