Nick Faith is Director of WPI Srategy.
One of my colleagues is a former policy adviser in the Treasury. He used to hate reshuffle day, complaining that the civil service would have to drop everything to brief a new set of ministers. But however much he and his former colleagues in Whitehall moaned about the political merry-go-round, their biggest gripe was what he says was the lack of a clear vision of many Secretaries of State and their Minister.
This is an important point. Taking on the responsibility of leading a government department is a major challenge. The in-tray is constantly overflowing with invitations and meeting requests. The special interest groups are forever knocking down the door to argue how important their particular issue is to the future of the country. It must be quite an overwhelming experience.
That is why it is vital that, before jumping straight into the daily task of running a department, each new and reappointed Secretary of State should take the time to establish a checklist consisting of the following five actions:
Choose the right team
Special Advisers (SPADS) are critical in assisting and advising Government Ministers. The best SPADS will help their Secretary of State deliver his or her agenda, lending support with the creation and development of policy together with the civil service, positioning them in a positive light in the media and acting as a political bodyguard. A smart Secretary of State will choose individuals whom they trust, who share their vision, who will fight tooth and nail to protect them and who are willing to challenge and provoke.
Identify strategic priorities
Clearly choosing a set of priorities will depend on a number of things, including delivering the party’s manifesto commitments and the Prime Minister’s core objectives. Some departments such as Northern Ireland and the Brexit department will have one principal strategic priority. Most departments, however, will not. A sensible Secretary of State will pick one or two priority areas to focus on that will enable them to deliver a truly lasting set of reforms. Given Brexit, the limited parliamentary time and a hung parliament, one of these priority areas has inevitably to be linked to demonstrating how leaving the EU will create specific opportunities for Britain. The priorities must also be easy to communicate. There is no point delivering much needed change as a politician if colleagues and the public aren’t aware of it.
Matthew Hancock, for example, the newly appointed Secretary of State at DDCMS, might want to set out two priorities. Firstly, to build on his plans to create a truly digital Britain to boost productivity across the UK and make the country a hotbed for tech research, development and investment. Secondly, to set the government’s agenda on tackling online bullying and the impact it has on childrens’ mental health.
Create a caucus of support among colleagues
This is where the job of the Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) comes into its own. An unpaid role, the PPS is the eyes and ears of the Secretary of State. A PPS will be able to subtly road test policy ideas with parliamentary colleagues before any announcement or speech is made. Building up backbench support for a proactive agenda of major reform is critical to success. Likewise when things go wrong, which they inevitably will, having a group of friendly MPs to lend vocal support is critical to the Secretary of State’s ability to get through the other side intact.
Seek out external supporters with influence
Identifying allies inside and outside the Westminster is also important. Embarking on a programme of reform will divide opinion. A Secretary of State who is able to call on a range of vocal supporters – NGOs, think tanks, businesses, councilors, high profile individuals – will stand a better chance of delivering on their priority areas. Greenpeace, for example, has an ability to reach over 1.7million people on Twitter alone. By working with the environmental group on their campaign to ban micro-beads, Michael Gove has been able to amplify his message that the Conservatives are serious about their obligations to protect the oceans and wildlife.
There will be speed bumps along the way. A huge amount of departmental time will inevitably be spent on reacting to situations as they suddenly develop. That is why it is so important that the Secretary of State does not try to set too many priorities. There has to be a disciplined plan and grid to deliver within the confines of the political cycle, which as we know, can be rather uncertain. Not everything will run like clockwork. Having the confidence in and broad support for the plan and being relentless in the pursuit of delivering it will ultimately pay dividend
The definition of a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve an overall aim. The success or failure of this week’s reshuffle cannot be judged overnight. The true picture will emerge if and when we see a clear set of priorities being communicated effectively by a Secretary of State and his or her ministerial team.