By Dunstan Hadley

21 Aug 2015

Modern government pulls ministers in every direction at once, which makes the officials in charge of their diaries indispensable. But as former civil servant Dunstan Hadley explains, fitting it all in can be tough

Ministers have a short shelf life. If they’re lucky they get about two years before being moved on. Two years in which to master their brief, decide what they want to do and then deliver. Their race against time doesn’t end there. During my time in private office it struck me that the Westminster system constantly diverts ministers away from their main task. It requires discipline, ruthless prioritising and smart working to generate the space to do the job well.

The electorate expects ministers to tick a number of boxes. We want them to be competent leaders who get through their work – the correspondence, parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and, of course, the non-stop flow of submissions from civil servants. Ideally we’d like them to be more than competent, and bring a reforming zeal to their brief to genuinely improve things. We also want them to spend time on the frontline – listening, debating, leading and showing they “get it”.

Added to that, we want our ministers to be conscientious MPs who spend time in their constituency, fighting for constituents and maintaining a close link to their roots. Finally, the public demands that ministers are human beings. So when they’re not in the office, out on the frontline, in their constituency, spending their weekend campaigning or doing The Andrew Marr Show, they’re expected to have families and do regular things so we can relate to them.  

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These multiple roles batter a minister’s diary. A minister with a marginal constituency far away from London may only be in the office from Monday afternoon to Thursday lunchtime – a three-day week, assuming they haven’t got a ministerial visit out in the regions somewhere, too. It’s no wonder that some Lords ministers can get more done: they often have one or two extra days in the office.

Still, three solid working days should be enough to get things done, shouldn’t it? Perhaps – if ministers spent those days on their policy areas. But often it’s not that simple. The system starts crowding out diaries from the moment the minister gets near SW1A. Parliamentary business takes up huge amounts of time. It is quite right that ministers are accountable to parliament. They should go off to vote on important matters, answer questions, face select committees and be hauled up to answer urgent questions. 

MPs are right to nag, lobby and cajole ministers all the time. But I always felt too much parliamentary business was taken up by things that didn’t relate to my minister’s policies. As a diary manager, I engaged in horse trading with other ministers’ offices over all sorts of parliamentary engagements that had nothing to do with my minister. It’s striking how often ministers are made to debate policies they’re not responsible for because another, more senior minister has pulled rank. 

This side of things is actually worse for Lords ministers. They have to answer every one of their department’s oral questions, covering every departmental policy area. They also spend weeks taking other ministers' legislation through the House. These commitments don’t just mean whole mornings or afternoons out of the office: ministers also have to clear their diary the previous day for briefing meetings and prep. This isn’t good for them, and it’s certainly not good for the MPs and peers who are also denied the opportunity in the Chamber to interrogate the relevant minister.
And then there are cabinet committees. I understand the system is slicker under this government, but we all used to dread the call from Cabinet Office trying to get our minister along to a committee. If the secretary of state decided they didn’t want to go, it was left to junior ministers to slug it out. They often returned saying they’d spent an hour or two saying nothing but listening to other ministers debate policies unrelated to their brief and sometimes unrelated to anything their department did either.

Cabinet ministers aren’t immune from this either. Number 10 can force them to cover for another cabinet minister at short notice, and never forget that they’re only ever a phone call away from having to tootle off to Buckingham Palace for privy council business. All of this makes it harder and harder to get out of the office for frontline visits. But these are so important, as is having the time to meet stakeholders. Charities, businesses, unions and campaign groups all vie for time in the diary, desperate to get their point of view across and make sure the minister is listening.

Somewhere in this maelstrom, ministers must carve out some time to focus on developing policy and delivering it. No wonder many ministers fail to make a lasting impression. If they’re competent they may keep the show on the road and not make any cock-ups. Few really make an impact or any tangible change. 

In the absence of big system changes, here are some reflections on things that ministers and their offices can do to create some much-needed diary space.

Ministers must prioritise what they want to do. It is not possible to give every policy equal attention. And while some policies are obviously less time-intensive, there are always trade-offs, even with the more meaty ones. Sometimes there may be a number of policies which need attention, but time pressures and political realities mean the minister will never succeed with major reforms in all of them. Ministers must therefore make a judgement call on which one they want to really reform, and probably focus less on the others. This requires a clear direction, and no small amount of steel. 

Don’t let the diary get too full
I remember a minister who accepted so many invitations to receptions and opening ceremonies that a special adviser joked that they probably gave a speech every time they opened their fridge. Receptions and events can be important, but only on a limited basis. Once you’ve accepted an invitation from one body in the sector you can end up insulting other stakeholders when you say no to their invitations. From the outset, ministers need to be firm enough to say no, and their office should see themselves as the front line of defence.

Make the best use of time that is available
Many ministers hold regular meetings on major policy areas to stay in touch. But not enough ministers make these meetings sacrosanct, and they’re moved or postponed too easily. During my time as a private secretary, I always found that the most important meetings were better held early in the morning, early in the week. The trick was getting them done before “events” started getting in the way. These meetings meant policy officials didn’t need to bother ministers during the week over non-urgent business, knowing they’d have an opportunity at the next meeting – thus buying more space in the diary.

Cut out the middle man
I always liked ministers who were prepared to phone or email officials directly. I knew some civil servants who were very wary of this – but provided private office listened, or were copied in, in order to note the discussion and action points, why go through the rigmarole of having notes going back and forth between ministers and officials if a five minute call clears up the issue?  

Meet and greet
From personal experience, it was great when ministers met and spoke to as many officials as possible. This doesn’t mean inviting vast numbers of officials along to policy meetings, but rather getting ministers to visit teams and speak to divisions so civil servants hear first-hand what drives these politicians and their policy. Departments have a tendency for Chinese Whispers: officials who never see a minister can come up with spurious stories and gripes about why decisions are being made. The more the minister and private office speak to the department – letting them know how they work and what is motivating them – the less of the minister’s time is wasted dealing with submissions, letters and pieces of advice that don't hit the spot.

Space is the place
I now think that the best thing I ever did (though at the time I felt like I’d failed) was scheduling the occasional block of empty space in the minister’s diary. And looking back I wish I had spent more of my time as diary secretary creating space for the minister: space in which to think, clear a bit of correspondence or have a quick chat with an official, spad or press officer about something important. These moments – when they came – often saved much more time later.

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