Yesterday we looked at what Ministers can and should do. In my sketch I left out the crucial issue of who runs the department?
In theory the Permanent Secretary runs the department, and the Secretary of State runs the department’s relations with the outside world. They come together to agree policy.
Any Minister who trusts this split between policy and implementation is unwise. In practice a good Ministerial team work closely with their officials in the development of policy, and with them on its implementation.
Ministers do need to carry their officials with them when setting out policy. Good officials respect the right of an elected government to implement new policies which they have sold to the electors or which they believe will improve the lives of people. Good Ministers respect good officials, and value their criticisms, comments and suggested improvements to policy. A good Minister also knows when to say he has heard enough, and takes a decision.
Similarly officials need to recognise that in the case of the major policies and functions Ministers have every right to be involved in how a policy is implemented. A good Minister understands that forming and announcing a policy is just the start, not the end of his task.Ministers can apply commonsense and their knowledge of a very wide range of different people in their constituency to help the civil service design ways of delivering the service that work well for the beneficiaries.
Ministers also need to be very concerned about value for money. They should be the taxpayer’s voice in all discussions. Whitehall has an understandable wish to pad the accounts and to ensure enough resource is committed to each initiative. The Minister should be the one who queries the budgets and seeks to ensure the department is always striving to deliver more for less.
A good Minister needs a formidable range of skills. They need to be able to analyse and criticise proposals rapdily and well, to lead a team of officials to get a task done accurately and promptly, to keep morale up in their department whilst ensuring sensible pressure for better quality and better value for money. A Minister needs to be able to see ahead, to help the department avoid future problems, to challenge the way things are being done and introduce new ways of working or new policies that can work better.
It is not easy splitting implementation from policy. Ministers need to sit down and help hammer out how something will be done. They do need to take an interest in the detail as well as in the high levvel press release and soundbite.