No Image Available

Nehal Davison

Read more from Nehal Davison

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Why government ministers need support


Winning an election is hard enough, but becoming a minister and getting to grips with governing is a whole other challenge.Yet there is remarkably little support and advice in place to help people manage this transition. Nehal Davison explains why this needs to urgently change. 

The sheer weight of responsibility, 24-hour media scrutiny and competing pressures on a minister's time can be overwhelming. Some rise to these challenges quickly – indeed, being a member of parliament (MP) prepares you for much of what ministerial office requires. But one of the most difficult transitions a new minister makes is the sudden assumption of leadership responsibility. Many new ministers have no experience of working in, let alone leading, a major Whitehall department.

However, there is remarkably limited support available for ministers to help make this transition as smooth as possible. Inductions, training and appraisals are non-existent. As Jacqui Smith recalls: “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.”

Getting to the top with hardly any experience or continuing development is virtually unheard of in other fields. Local government has long been active in preparing councillors. Outside the UK, Australia and New Zealand have developed performance management systems for ministers, and in the corporate world, continuing professional development is the norm for chief executives.

More training per se cannot of course prepare ministers for all the challenges of office, but I believe some form of preparation and continuing development is essential. This can include 360-degree appraisals, expert seminars and team away days that help them to clearly communicate priorities, forge effective relationships and build well-functioning teams. 

The earlier ministers prepare for government, the better. Some of the early challenges faced by both the Thatcher and Blair governments stemmed to some degree from insufficient thought given to how government works and the reality of implementation. The handover process in the UK is swift, and opposition parties would benefit enormously from preparing their shadow teams for office much more thoroughly.

It appears, however, that politicians have fewer incentives than leaders from other sectors to make time for this support and development. Managerial skills – that is, how effective they are in getting the best out of their junior ministers and staff – count for little when it comes to promotions: as Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, put it, ‘the appointment of a Cabinet is politics, not HR’. Most ministers then only have one year and nine months to do a single job, which unsurprisingly encourages them to be reactive and focused on short-term considerations. 

However, there is a latent appetite among politicians for some form of support in developing and honing their leadership skills – indeed, many recognise that it is in their long-term interest to invest in this. Working effectively with those around them – whether junior ministers, advisers, civil servants, cabinet colleagues, backbench MPs or, in recent years, coalition partners – is essential to getting legislation through Parliament and driving through ambitious policy priorities that deliver real changes on the ground. The challenge for ministers lies in knowing where to go for this type of support and finding time for it, given the many other pressing demands on their time. 

Those working in political parties, the civil service or in professional development need help to enter this space so that those politicians reaching the top ministerial jobs in government are much better supported along the way.

Nehal Davison is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government where she led the design and development of the Institute’s programme of support for current, and potential, ministers in the run-up to the 2015 election. The Institute for Government recently published a new paper, which sets out how it has gone about supporting politicians from all major parties to better prepare for and perform leadership roles in government.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!