Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Ministers need to be better prepared for office

A comment by Jacqui Smith in her rather candid interview with Iain Dale in the latest edition of Total Politics chimed with something I have thought for a long time. This is what she said:

If I ever describe the process of becoming a minister - moving from one ministerial job to another - to somebody in almost any other job outside they think it is, frankly, pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works. That's not just this government... To be fair, Gordon had talked to me about whether or not I wanted to do a different job but you have to get to a pretty senior position in government - and you have to be pretty powerful as hell - before you can even express a view, let alone expect to influence where you go. I think we should have been better trained. I think there should be more induction. There's more now than when I started as a minister but it's still not enough. I think there should be more emphasis given to supporting ministers more generally in terms of developing the skills needed to lead big departments, for example. 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.

It seems odd to me that people are put in charge of huge sprawling departments with thousands of people working under them and budgets of billions of pounds often without any experience of running anything except a constituency office. Also, the skills required to be a good minister are in some ways different to those required to become and remain an MP.

It is crazy that we just drop people into these jobs with minimal if any training. Our political system of course makes it almost impossible for it to be any other way. Can you imagine the furore if George Osborne decided to go on a training course on how to be an effective Treasury minister, or Liam Fox openly took a week out to do a course run by Defence Secretarys past? Labour and the media would make their lives hell and it could easily lead to their positions becoming untenable as the cry of them "not being ready for office" reached fever pitch.

I suspect a fair bit of readiment goes on behind closed doors anyway but they would not be able to admit to the extent of it for the reasons given above. For some reason we seem to expect politicians to be ready for the demands of office straight away, almost as if they were born to it.

One of the problems is that we don't have fixed term parliaments. This means that a charge from the Labour party against the opposition right now that they weren't ready for office would be all the more potent because an election could be called at any time. If we knew for definite when the election would be called then the environment would make it easier for opposition politicians to make sure they were fully up to speed before entering office.

Another problem is that it seems to basically be in the gift of the incumbent government how much access a putative incoming administration has to the civil service and hence allows them to play political games with this access in order to try and wrong-foot the opposition and make it harder for them to be ready should they win. This is a crazy situation and is one of the things that should be taken out of the hands of the government. The politicians who are in power don't own the apparatus of government, they are custodians of it and it is simply wrong that they can make life harder than necessary for their potential successors. This can lead to bad government further down the line which will affect all of us.

The other big problem is how quickly the newly elected administration is expected to be up and running. The election is held on a Thursday. The count happens overnight. If a new government is elected then the outgoing PM hot foots it down to the palace part way through the Friday. The new PM then gets the seals of office from Her Maj. an hour or so later and (s)he appoints their cabinet and government over the next day or two. So next year we could have most of the cabinet and most of the government dropped in at very short notice with no previous experience of government and very little if any training. Contrast this with how it works in say the US. There, the incoming administration gets almost 3 months to prepare. They are given full access to everything they need to get up to speed and a "transition team" is in place to make sure the process is smooth.

I doubt anything in the UK will change soon. Cameron said he would "look" at the case for fixed term parliaments. I strongly suspect that this is code for "do nowt" once in office. Also, as I said the political culture mitigates against it. Politicians find it very difficult to admit weakness of any kind when in or seeking office so I think we are destined to suffer poorly trained and prepared ministers for the forseeable future.


Robert said...

They have a team under them of vast experience or did you not watch yes minister....

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

A sound point Robert - “I run the department”, as Sir H. Appleby told Jim Hacker.

The problems cited are all virtues of the present system and do not run to issues of fitness for office. Jacqui Smith was out of her depth: she would not have been appointed but for Brown’s error of judgement.

Some of the recent posts on John Redwood’s blog about what needs to be done by the next government show that it is possible to be prepared. The system requires political leadership not administrative adeptness although clearly ministerial jobs are demanding and should be filled with people with grip, imagination, intelligence, insight etc.. Typically quality has not been an issue, despite notable exceptions. The greater concern is that it is preserved but there are trends against this - not least “career politicians” with no “outside interests” who know insufficient about the way the world works.

Ewan the liberal beardy said...

I think this is all a strong argument for retaining the ability to appoint members of the House of Lords. MPs can be MPs, and the leadership can appoint people from outside politics who might have a clue what to do with a government department. There is the problem of accountability, but I'd much rather the Prime Minister had the option of bringing in the best of the best rather than pick from 300 or so populist lightweights.

Alex said...

Agree 100% with this.

Let's also bring in vetting for cabinet appointments, again like they do in the US.

And I'd love to see people like Mandelson or Osborne go on a "training course", that'd be hilarious!

Kalvis Jansons said...

Good point!