Fewer reshuffles and fewer ministers?

Posted on: October 10th, 2013

I don’t know what will be included in the weekend red boxes of the newly reshuffled ministers, but I’m fairly confident it won’t include the latest book by Ivor Crewe and Tony King about government blunders.

That is a shame because the book includes some good advice for newly appointed ministers about the dangers of ministerial reshuffles and ministerial activism. It also offers some balance to the fashionable view that the failures of government can be laid at the door of obstructive and incompetent civil servants, although they – rightly – do not escape all blame.

To give the Prime Minister credit, he has not been an over-enthusiastic reshuffler. Limiting the latest exercise to posts largely outside the Cabinet is helpful, although when taken with last year’s exercise some departments will still have experienced significant churn – Defra now has no ministers with a full year’s service for example. The loss of knowledge and continuity at ministerial level creates problems for both the design and implementation of policy, let alone accountability for the outcomes.

The real risk identified by Crewe and King lies in the nature of these junior ministerial posts as career development opportunities for aspiring politicians. Statistically, newly appointed ministers know they have no more than 12 to 18 months in which to make their mark, whether that is staking a claim to further preferment or just leaving behind something tangible to mark their passage. The odds are stacked against them.

The chances are they will be appointed to look after an area of policy with which they are largely unfamiliar. They will probably get little guidance from their Secretaries of State about what they should prioritise. There will be legacy projects from their predecessors that at best need finishing off and probably a lot more. The moment of change is often a time for civil servants to reveal their concerns and reservations about current projects that will have to be dealt with.

There will be a torrent of requests to meet myriad representative and trade bodies, each with requests for action to meet their current concerns. The temptation to get stuck in, take decisions and be active is almost overwhelming. Against this the timetables of properly evidenced and consulted policy making will seem frustratingly slow and the temptation to cut corners will be real.

New ministers may be lucky. They could join a Department where ministers work as a team, delivering clear priorities set by the Secretary of State with matching departmental resources allocated. But that is rare. The advent of coalition government, and the trend to appoint junior ministers of both parties to “keep an eye” on what the party running the Department is up to won’t encourage team working.

There is very little discussion in government proposals on civil service reform of the opportunity offered by coherent ministerial teams providing political leadership to government departments to improve overall performance. The focus is instead on increasing the support available to Secretaries of State through Special Advisers and Extended Ministerial Offices (“cabinets” presumably sounded too European). As we argue in our paper “Civil Service Reform – Hidden Dangers?” there is no fundamental objection to increasing the immediate support to Secretaries of State, if that is what they want, subject to a number of safeguards. But if we go down that route it does raise questions about the point of junior ministers.

The UK government has around 120 Ministerial posts. France, which does run a cabinet system, has about a third of that number.

Of course from a party management point of view, having a large number of ministerial posts at his disposal gives the Prime Minister a great deal of leverage which goes beyond those who are office holders to those who have hopes. We shouldn’t of course forget the mirroring which now goes on in the Opposition where shadow ministerial teams are at least as extensive as the government’s.

The net result of all this is that a large proportion of the most able and energetic Parliamentarians are either in Ministerial or shadow posts, or hoping to be so. Ambition or collective responsibility will limit their activities as Parliamentarians as a result. The supine performance of Parliament in holding the Executive to account is also identified by Crewe and King as a significant factor in the blunders of past – and present – governments.

I don’t suppose we will significantly reduce the number of ministers, but if we are keeping them, there has to be more to it than party management and work experience.

Phillip Ward

(a member of the BGI’s Executive Committee)