Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers have for many years undertaken reshuffles that can do more harm than good. The way they are carried out is crude. Too often there is insufficient time spent on training, mentoring, career and succession planning. The good practices of personnel management, and some of the common courtesies of working with others, are ignored because we are told “government is different”.
Government is different. It has more power. It has the power to take money off people, sending them to prison if they refuse to pay. It has the power to make everyone do as it says, by changing the law. It operates on a huge scale, affecting directly the lives of every single person in the country. Those characteristics, you might have thought, would encourage the use of the very best techniques of personnel selection, retention and promotion.
Instead, reshuffles are often seen as ways of disciplining MPs by idle threats and hints of advancement. We read of far more reshuffles than are carried out. We read of far more sackings than happen. Whilst some of the press stories on Ministerial changes are planted by others which the government cannot control, some of the most persistent have under various PMs come from the centre. A Minister learns of his pending sacking from a paper, not from his boss.
There are three good reasons why some Ministers need to be sacked. If a Minister is not good at the job and lacks the Ministerial skills, he or she might need to be asked to stand down. This should only follow clear warnings, the offer of mentoring and training, and all the other usual efforts made in business to get an executive to perform. The eventual sacking if the help fails should not be a surprise and should be managed by mutual private communication.
If a Minister is becoming too detached from the government’s policy, is becoming an encouragement for dissenting views, and is seeking to rally MPs or other outside forces to his cause, the PM may have to move him or her or get them to leave. This should also follow attempts to get the Minister to play by the rules and to stick to the common line. Mr Clegg should be having these types of conversation with Mr Cable, who often seems to be a loose cannon seeking to appeal to Lib Dems thinking of a different Leader by providing a running critical commentary on the government he is meant to defend.
If a decent hard working Minister has spent a long time at a given level of government and is not thought suitable for promotion, there comes a time when his or her place might be needed for some new talent. This is the more difficult case for sacking. The sensible way to handle this would be for the PM when appointing a PUSS or a Minister of State to outline the options for the future. He could say that typically someone might be a junior Minister for up to say 4 years, but then it would be upwards or out. The regular reviews a junior Minister should have with a Senior Minister would cover the Ministers future eligibility and suitability for promotion. By the time the Minister was asked to leave without promotion it should be no surprise, as expectations would be managed accordingly.
Quite often the need for changes to Ministerial ranks is forced on a PM. This government has had to find a new Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a new Energy Secretary following the enforced resignations of Mr Laws and Mr Huhne. More recently the government has lost its Railway Minister to the ambition of becoming Deputy Speaker. If the government is following a good policy of career advancement and training there will be natural successors available to bring on.
Managing expectations and eliminating most surprises will remove much of the bitterness from sackings. If someone is sacked out of the blue they will feel the world is unfair and will resent the PM. If they have been through a long process of trying to meet targets and expectations but have failed at least they will understand why they have gone and will have had a chance to put it right. If they have not made it to promotion they will have some idea of why and may be more reconciled. It will not have been a shock. Each category could also be given some flexibility on leaving date if that would help. We need to get away from the idea that many jobs have to be switched all at the same time. Occasional minor adjustments might be a better, less destabilising way.
Equally important to the task of removing people without surprise or without too many feelings of ill will is the task of giving new Ministers clear instructions on what they are expected to achieve. Indeed, you can only have a fair and effective system of personnel management if people are set achievable tasks and are judged by reasonable criteria on how well they have achieved those tasks. I will talk in a later blog about what the different levels of Minister should be expected to do, and how a PM and his senior Ministers can monitor, assess and encourage to get better results.