No, minister

October 22, 2013 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

I find myself unimpressed by a new Whitehall guide to better policy making….

During my brief undistinguished time in Government one of my trademarks was making politically unfeasible suggestions. On one occasion I wrote the PM a long note about how we should reduce the number of ministers or at least give them time-limited measurable tasks rather than let them wander around departments trying to find something interesting to do. Given that handing out ministerial portfolios is a key aspect of Downing Street patronage, the only impact of my suggestion was to further undermine my already tenuous credibility.

In a similar vein I argued passionately, and with absolutely no success, that the capability reviews of Government departments, which began in Labour’s third term, should not just explore the work of civil servants but also what seemed to me to be often the most dysfunctional aspect of Whitehall – the interface between ministers and special advisors, on the one hand, and senior civil servants on the other. I remember the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell responding to the suggestion that we scrutinise this aspect of departments with the mixture of politeness and disdain you might reserve for the man on the bus who confides in you his ability to control the weather with his feet.

In the age of leaks one top secret document that hasn’t, as far as I know, surfaced is the assessment made by Permanent Secretaries of the qualities of their Secretaries of State. Although this assessment is available to the Prime Minister, it is in everyone’s interests to keep it under wraps; not least those of the PM himself, who generally wants to make ministerial appointments on the basis of political considerations and not have his judgement clouded with irrelevancies like merit or ability.

I was once informally told how Labour cabinet ministers fared and it was interesting to see the almost total absence of correlation between political star status and those who – according to the PermSecs – were any good at their job. I can’t help thinking the quality of Government might be improved if after a decent time interval – say three years – these judgements were published.

Broadly speaking civil servants look for a short list of qualities in their political masters. In no particular order these include:

  • A clear, consistent and coherent medium term plan which can be understood at all levels and provides a basis for policy officials to develop a sense of what is, and is not, likely to be well received.
  • A reasonable and consistently applied distinction between political and strategic issues (where the ministers lead) and operational ones on which they don’t, unless there is good evidence of failure or a risk of it.
  • Resilience and a willingness to take responsibility in the face of problems and attacks, including a resistance to acting in haste.
  • Tending to trust officials and having a good instinct for where advice should be questioned and where it should be accepted.
  • Respecting process and being courteous and demanding the same from the rest of the political team.

I am willing to bet that on a three point scale the Secretaries of State who score more than ten out of fifteen are in the minority.

All of which goes toward explaining why I found the recent report ‘Twelve actions to professionalise policy making‘, produced by the Whitehall Policy Profession Board, deeply underwhelming.

Once again the political interface is deemed too hot to touch and so, once again, the whole approach is of limited value and highly artificial. I say this despite the fact that I am quoted (although not named) in the report *.

The Coalition deserves praise for some important improvements in the way Government works. Fixed term Parliaments are a big step forward (imagine the blight now on Government if we were constantly discussing whether David Cameron might call a spring election next year). There have also been some important innovations in evidence gathering – such as the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the ‘What Works Centres’. The very limited number of ministerial changes of office is also a boon, especially after the appaling turnover rate under Labour.

But still, the fiction persists that we can substantially improve policy making without discussing the performance of ministers and the interface between them and civil servants. As long as it does, the promise to improve the quality of policy making in Whitehall will ring hollow.

*My quote: ‘Designers assume that a problem needs to be redefined, you need to really understand what the nature of the problem is, you need to take it apart…they will spend time talking to employees, customers and clients….if there’s one set of skills Departments lack it’s not policy making, it’s design)



  • Matthew Mezey

    The great organisational psychologist Elliot Jaques felt that it ought to be public knowledge what the cognitive complexity/time horizon of all our political leaders (and teachers et al) is, as he believed it to be so determinant of what they are capable of achieving.

    One Jaques-related website used to include this data for recent US presidential candidates! (Comparing the lifetime trajectory of Barack Obama’s ‘time horizon’ with Sarah Palin’s was rather funny!).

    Interestingly, in an article in Fast Company, Art Kleiner mentioned that one unnamed European investment firm predicted share values by evaluating the cognitive complexity/time horizon of CEOs – though ‘like many Jaques-infuenced business groups, it doesn ’t advertise its method’.

    You may be interested in what happened with the innovative ‘systems thinking’ approach to creating successful government policy that Prof Jake Chapman FRSA advocated in his popular pamphlet ‘Systems Failure – why governments must learn to think differently’.

    He was soon invited to give numerous presentations across Whitehall and beyond about the transformative ideas it contained.

    “The result was universally the same: real interest in the ideas and their potential, and no willingness to adopt or try any of the ideas or tools in practice,” he says.

    Jake eventually concluded that it was leadership maturity stage that seemed to be able to predict those few people who were willing to sit with the vulnerability that comes with initiating real innovations.

    (Ideas around leadership maturation are discussed in the recent report ‘Anti Hero – the Hidden Revolution in Leadership & Change’, which I co-authored with Richard Wilson FRSA: There is a Guardian online live-chat about it tomorrow, with a great panel: Do join in!)

    Organisations could be taking leadership maturity stage into account when recruiting new leaders (as has happened in one or two local authorities), or coaching their current leaders to foster this development.

    Interestingly, when Chapman was working at the School of Government with the High Potential Development group (top public sector leaders) he found that those few later stage leaders – the innovators! – spontaneously set up their own informal group and began to meet regularly – perhaps getting a kind of support and understanding that wasn’t coming from their organisations?

    I’m never quite sure if I’m depressed (clearly no-one wants to innovate!) or inspired (actually a few people do, and we know how to recruit them and coach them – if we make it a priority) when I hear about Jake’s experience…

    Matthew Mezey

  • Jill Rutter

    hi Matthew,,,,

    of course you are right – it takes tow to tango and two to make policy and Ministers matter enormously.

    That said, I think it is a really major development than simply shrug their shoulders and hide behind the “wrong sort of ministers” the civil service is now acknowledging that it can up its game and improve the quality of its advice. Will it mean Ministers take it – not necessarily. but it should make it a more foolhardy act to ignore.

    Institute for Government research ( showed relations between ministers and civil service too often in a quite degraded state at the end of the last government; things have only got worse since then. we also found that no one was taking responsibility for quality of advice

    if the civil service is to re-assert its value, it needs to take responsibility for what it can control and improve. This review is a significant step forward – not the end but an important move forward. Hopefully this first step may then trigger a response by those who can do something about ministerial performance

  • Indy Neogy

    It’s interesting to consider that governments are composed of two kinds of ministers or policy areas.

    In the great hinterland you have all the humdrum stuff. Flood defences, the DBIS, etc. That’s where the competence of the minister and a good relationship with the civil servants can help the country.

    Then you have the peak issues, which vary depending on the manifesto. Policy here has been set in the manifesto in advance. The quality depends on the think tank who wrote it. (Or even more disturbingly, Andrew Lansley who wrote it in the case of the NHS.) I seem to recall someone, maybe it was you MT? writing about this and the fact that overall British think tanks are pretty poor at writing policy… so maybe that’s an area to address…

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  • Christine Hemming

    I have to agree. I don’t see how the new guide differs much from the guidance being produced by the likes of the Better Regulation Task Force or the Treasury and Cabinet Office ten years ago (although it is a little encouraging that it at least includes the word ‘knowledge’ and doesn’t just focus on skills). All civil servants know that, for all the talk of evidence-based-policy-making, the reality is policy-based evidence-making. HMT’s Green Book encapsulates the five policy tests and is supposedly binding on Departments, but appears to have done little to improve policy making. Why should this new guide?

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