Changing Ministers badly

Gordon Brown today gets his come uppance for the crude and unpleasant way Prime Ministers treat colleagues. He inherited from his two past predecessors the bad habit of allowing stories in the press in advance of a reshuffle setting out who is no longer in favour and who has to go. No wonder some Ministers have decided to call his bluff and resign before he can sack them.

This is not a day for sympathy for Miniuters, but let me be unfashionable. If we want Ministers who can do the job well, and who can concentrate on the task in hand, we need the Prime Minister to behave very differently. Newly appointed Ministers should be told what is expected of them, and told how they will be mentored and monitored. This rarely or never happens in government.

The Minister should undergo a private review of performance from time time to time – a Cabinet member from the PM, and junior Ministers from the Cabinet Minister in charge of their department. If a Minister is not measuring up to the job they should be given the chance to improve following private coaching and criticism. if they fail to make the grade they should be given warning that they may have to stand down at the following reshuffle. If they play the game they should not be monstered or briefed against in the press.

Instead we have a crude and nasty system. Ministers who have not been told to improve or change read in the papers that the PM no longer rates them, or read of someone else being groomed for their job. On the day of the reshuffle they are left on the end of their phones, paralysed and unable to command authority in their departments, if they have been given the black spot in the press. There are surprises both ways on the day of the reshuffle. Ministers often get shuffled into jobs they did not want and know nothing about. Then the same wearisome cycle begins all over again.

Proper career planning and time spent on finding out what talents and interests Ministers and potential Ministers have would pay handsome dividends. It is no wonder so many Ministries are so badly led, when you see how the bosses are appointed,and then how they are treated once in place. When I advised Margaret Thatcher I introduced a system of regular bilateral reviews between the PM and each cabinet colleague, so they had an opportunity to set out what they were trying to do, what problems they were encountering, and a chance to hear for themselves what the PM thought of what they were achieiving. It was important to have regular meetings to agree priorities, hammer out diffferences, and to identify early disagreements and disappointments on either side. 20 reports is a lot, but a busy and active PM could handle it. It also gave the PM a total strategic picture of what the government was doing, and enabled her to concentrate on the bigger issues that defined the strategy.


  1. Kevin Lohse
    June 3, 2009

    Absolutely 100% common sense, John. If even the ECB now tells players whether they are in or out of the team, rather than letting players find out from the Press on the morning of the first day’s play, then a Minister should expect to recieve the same sort of treatment. Of course, that presupposes that a system is open, honest and people trust the man at the top……………

  2. Mick Anderson
    June 3, 2009

    It would also be a mild incentive for the PM of the day to have fewer Ministers cluttering up the place. However, it also assumes that the PM trusts those that he promotes to perform their tasks autonomously. For example, many believe that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer is entirely superfluous.

    However, one of the problems with politics is that (by the nature of the situation), people are promoted for political reasons, rather than because they should be good at the job. Mere interest in a subject does not qualify someone to run a department with a massive staff and a budget of billions. Likewise, pure ambition (combined with sheer bloody-mindedness) does not qualify someone to be Prime Minister.

    Perhaps if the Civil Service was properly independent and self-supporting, guided by Ministerial policy rather than micro-managed by politicians who generally do not have the competence to run a window cleaning round, it would be able to work within a defined area of expertise.

    Instead, there are any number of (often contradictory) initiatives being announced in the press, with the appearance of them not having been thought through for more than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Competent heads of departments should have been consulted and listened to, and relevant people in related, associated or affected areas would have been briefed.

    At least Jim Hacker suspected that he didn’t know what went on beneath him, and cared enough to investigate. He looks like the ideal (Prime) Minister when compared to this crowd of badly-led and untalented incompetents.

  3. Colin D.
    June 3, 2009

    You are merely describing the bog standard one-to-one reviews that a manager has with his staff. The fact that this is not done within the government is testament to the folly of having politicians who have no hands-on knowledge of a ‘proper’ job and cannot bring worthwhile experience to bear upon their ministerial jobs.

  4. Dungeekin
    June 3, 2009

    The upcoming ‘reshuffle’ should be….interesting.

    I have a picture in my mind’s eye of the Prime Minister’s deliberations….


  5. alan jutson
    June 3, 2009

    Clearly you are using your experience of normal business practice with regard to the standard form of man (and women) management, and usual appraisal system employed by so many organisations.

    The problem is that you are one of the few who is even aware that such a system exists. Because unlike many, you have been (and still are) in industry and commerce which is a real advantage.

    This Government has very few people who have such experience of such a workplace, where competition with other competitor companies exist, so you have to be effective in every way in order to survive and move forward.

    It has been said by myself and many others on this Blog, that career Politicians with no commercial experience are an absolute liability.

    Will a new Chancellor have any sort of Accountancy, or real Economic, Banking or Business skills ?????

    Will the new Home Secretary have any experience in Law, Policing, have been a Magistrate (or even been a suspect who has been through the system)?????

    Will the Health Secretary have any experience in the Health Service other than as a patient (not a private one which does not count), have any sort of Business skills (because it uses vast amounts of money) ?????.

    Sadly in all of the above cases the answer is unlikely.

    When you combine that with a Prime Minister (CEO) who seems to have very few of the normalaly recognised staff management skills, and cannot seem to be able to delegate successfully, you have a real problem.

    The fact that the Prime Minister (CEO) has also achieved the top position by default (without any competition) just compounds the problem.

    Is it any wonder that no one, other than a few die hards, have any confidence at all with the people in power.
    We cannot now even say they were honourable.

    We are now in a dangerous drift, but we cannot hold an election until all of the revelations by the Telegraph stop, as further news/revelations may poison a new Government.

    The sad fact is that our Government has been obsessed with spin and the Media for the last 12 years, rather than introducing well thought out policies of substance. Now they have been found out (why it took so long I will never know) they are reaping the backlash.

    I fear the present chaos, and chaos it now is, will continue for many months yet.

    Perhaps it is time that we as a Nation must have written into the constitution that a General Election Must take place if a Prime Minister is to be replaced for ANY REASON.

    We may then get less plotting by Party Members to remove the PM (Conservatives and Labour guilty in the past), and it will give the advantage that the new Prime Minister has at least the authority of having being elected.

  6. John Moss
    June 3, 2009

    But John, when you advised MT, she gave her Ministers authority and independence within an over-arching strategic framework. They then got on with the job.

    For the last 13 years we have had micro-management of Ministers through the Treasury Public Service Agreements which specified what Ministers were to do based on the dictats of Borrowing Brown. They were little more than adminstrators.

    Any “performance review” would be as much of a tick box exercise as the financial regulation system and probably as much of a failure.

    A new Government must work fast to dismantle the PSA structure and set out a more devolved system. That ought to release resources as people cease to spend time matcing their jobs to the PSA targets rather than doing what is necessary. As this seems to be a consistent theme under-pinning much of the Cameron agenda, I hope it will happen.

  7. Brian Tomkinson
    June 3, 2009

    Brown doesn’t believe in cabinet government. He believes that HE is the government. That tells it all.

  8. Patrick
    June 3, 2009

    Ah Mr Redwood. You must have some experience working in the real world – as this is exactly what pretty much all companies do.

    Expecting real world managerial competence from Labour is a demonstration of the triupmh of hope over experience I’m afraid.

    I do hope Dave will do what you suggestwhen he’s in No.10.

  9. Acorn
    June 3, 2009

    Sorry JR but this is old style, top down, thinking. I will mention today for the umpteenth time, that it would be far better to separate the Executive from the Legislature. Elect the PM directly, let him/her choose whomever he wants to his Cabinet. Persons elected to other offices would not be eligible for Cabinet. They will serve at the PM’s pleasure; he goes, they go.

    The House of Commons of elected MPs, would be able to challenge senior appointments. HoC will be able to spend more time scrutinising new and repealing and consolidating old legislation, instead of, as now, waiting for ministers to finish their day job before sittings can begin. HoC would be open twenty four seven, some of the time in “stand-by” mode; ready to go at the ring of a bell and vote at the press of a button on a Blackberry.

    Yesterday (02/06/09) was another classic example of a bill the government was ramming through parliament (Borders etc., Bill, see link). The few MP’s that bothered to turn up to debate it, soon learnt that this Bill was the pre-amble to another Bill down the road. It became obvious that much detail was missing and the Home Secretary appeared to be moving a Bill that was different to the one on the order paper. But, she still expected the lobby fodder to vote it through, and she would fill in the details later.

    While you are looking at the above link, look at previous sessions. See how many previous versions of Bills on the same subject you can spot. Also, on SLD, a search for Acts that confer powers on Ministers to make secondary legislation and/or blanket amendments, is about 84. Nearly half of those have been made by this Labour government since 1997.

  10. Mike Stallard
    June 3, 2009

    It seems to me, an outsider, that what has happened is the ancient shifting of the tectonic plates. Being English, we like to keep our ancient offices looking the same when power has long since shifted elsewhere.
    The power has now shifted away from Parliamentary Ministers to the Prime Minister’s Office at No 10 Downing Street, which is now fenced off, having become an administrative centre containing the Press office and the Chancery and the all important spider’s web office where Mr Brown can chat with his advisers some of whom are MPs and some of whom aren’t.
    The Cabinet, it seems, has lost its power now, although it still keeps going. The fulcrum of power, however and the social nexus of government has long gone. 20 odd people are not able to discuss things fully and openly. It turns into a conference.
    I think this explains the cavalier treatment of ministers.
    And who knows wheat Mr Balls has been saying to the Press? It is all top secret!

  11. cuffleyburgers
    June 3, 2009

    What you describe is of course best practice and common in the private sector.

    No real surprise but still very depressing that government as usual is so behind.

    And no surprise that Brown is particularly bad at it.

    He is wholly lacking in the skills needed to be a good manager, and will have no career after he leaves number 10.

    In fact it strikes me that the whole system is against people with good management skills reaching the top, which is a good argument for limiting the reach of govt.

  12. Jim Pearson
    June 3, 2009

    Your last paragraph says it all for me, since maggie it’s not been the same. Whether you think thats good or bad depends on you, me I think your right. Does Mr Cameron or whichever is todays candidate for labour agree, thats the question.

  13. APL
    June 3, 2009

    JR: “Perhaps it is time that we as a Nation must have written into the constitution that a General Election Must take place if a Prime Minister is to be replaced for ANY REASON.”

    The alternative might be that the Prime minister needs to be elected or confirmed by the house as the first business after the general election.

  14. alan jutson
    June 3, 2009

    Another one bites the dust, this time its smiling Hazel.

    Who is next ????

    Just seen Lord Mandleson on TV

    You have to hand it to the guy, like him or not, he does not get flustered very often, no matter what the question or situation, even the custard smear did not stick for long !!!!

    Now tipped as a possible Foreign Secretary in a Brown shuffle, and not elected by anyone. !!

    One has to ask why ?

  15. AnotherJohn
    June 4, 2009

    “Private review of performance from time to time”. The comments suggest I’m in a minority of one – but my experience is that regular appraisal is not particularly helpful.

    I can’t understand what is wrong with freeing people up, and letting them (as much as possible) get on with the job without interference. While for learners and poor appointees it may mean regular and frequent oversight for others it may mean very infrequent interference. In all cases it means real time intervention rather than batch processing.

    OK – all big corporations do appraisal, likewise the public sector the NGOs, charities and Armed Forces. But so what? Any CEO/ manager who is not on top of his team/ company on a day to day basis is unlikely to be helped by having a scheduled formalised appraisal system. If anything is going wrong, or if anyone is not up to speed, it/he/she should not have to wait for an appraisal to be informed.

    And in any event, would JR like to be appraised by someone who he would regard as not up to the job. This happens very regularly in the real world out here!

Comments are closed.