Sticking around: The rise of the expert Minister?

Ministers come and Ministers go. It’s what civil servants have traditionally assumed. Now it’s different. Ministers are sticking around.

The outgoing Chief Secretary and Business Secretary were in post for five years. Their replacements might do another five. It’s not impossible that the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary – even though these are intensely political positions – will be in them for seven or eight years in total. If it continues, this longevity has the potential to change our system of government.

The first change is due to Ministers becoming more expert. Practically, we should expect them to make better decisions as they go beyond coping with a brief to mastering it. Stuff will still go wrong but, if Ministers can ride through waves of criticism, then they will have the opportunity to put things right rather than have someone new sweep in and try again. Equally, if they keep failing, then the fault will be very much their own. Iain Duncan Smith’s experience with Universal Credit is the case in point.

But the influence of long-staying Ministers will extend beyond the delivery of major projects. They will also reshape who is at the top in government departments and elsewhere. If Secretaries of State can start planning for 5 year terms, then they have a higher stake in choosing who is around them; and they have the time to move people on and bring in new senior officials and quango leaders. They will benefit personally from improving capability, or reducing disagreement to improve focus; it will be neither altruistic nor petty. The tussles that began in the last Parliament over more political involvement in senior appointments will now surely be settled in favour of Ministers. They will have the staying power to win.

While more permanent Secretaries of State may create a more uncomfortable setting for civil servants, and raise worries about the independence of the civil service, they may also force a higher level of professionalism. Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, devised with his Permanent Secretary a set of tests that policy officials should meet before submitting advice. One of them was: are you the expert? It’s an excellent question. And, if Ministers are in place for longer, then civil servants have to work harder to acquire and prove their expertise. That’s a good thing and an important corrective to the long-held cult of the amateur in the civil service.

But there’s a sting in the tail for Ministers too. Their predecessors might have stuck around for a long term as well; and this will make them more effective as potential critics. We’ve seen that this week. When the Prime Minister spoke about his ambition to create a ‘7 day NHS’, some of the most effective critique – or realism – was expressed by Norman Lamb, who has just completed a lengthy stint as a Minister in the Department for Health. He genuinely does know what he is talking about when he points out that the Prime Minister’s objectives cannot be achieved easily. Journalists and all other interested observers have noticed and they will keep asking him for his views.

Potentially we can have a virtuous cycle here: expert Ministers held to account by expert former Ministers. This is hopeful but in the world of more spending cuts and high ambitions for modernising public services it’s the type of hope we need.


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