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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Ministers: Experts or pawns?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Imagine you are the head teacher of a secondary school.

Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson was one of the winners in the latest reshuffle

It's a tough job and you've had your share of difficulties, but you think you are finally starting to get the hang of it.

Then one morning, out of the blue, you get a call from your boss, who tells you you're doing such a good job he wants you to go and run the local hospital instead. Or the local council. Or take charge of an army regiment.

You've never asked for a change of job - you were quite happy where you were - and you have no real interest in, or enthusiasm for, any of the subjects you are being asked to take on.

But you agree to a move anyway because you don't want to rock the boat.

This is how Cabinet reshuffles can sometimes seem.

Better planned?

One minute we are asked to believe Ruth Kelly, to pluck one example entirely at random, is the best person to be telling head teachers how to select pupils for their schools, the next she's telling local government planning departments that they should be changing their rules on where new houses and flats are built.

At the weekend, following Tony Blair's biggest ever reshuffle, ministers could be spied in huddles outside Westminster TV studios with their special advisers, desperately trying to bone up on their new brief.

Hazel Blears, Labour Chairwoman
Hazel Blears was also promoted by Mr Blair

No new minister wants to look like he or she doesn't know what they are talking about on television.

Thursday's reshuffle did at least make more sense - and appear better planned - than previous ones, according to most pundits, even if it was not as seamless as Mr Blair would have liked.

Alan Johnson returns to education, where he was seen as a success as a junior minister. David Miliband, a man long groomed for the top, has been given a chance to prove himself with his own department, up against Conservative leader David Cameron in the new political battleground of the environment.

Yet the impression of ministers being shuffled almost at random, for reasons of political expediency, persists.

Tough operator

In one television interview, John Reid admitted he had not exactly "lobbied" to be moved from defence to the home office but had agreed to take the job because "when Tony Blair asks me to do something I do it".

Mr Reid has done nine different jobs in nine years.

His real enthusiasm is for defence, the department he shadowed when Labour was in opposition, but he has also been health secretary, Commons leader and Labour Party chairman among other things.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beckett, a woman with years of ministerial experience under her belt, admitted, as she discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions at the UN that she is "flying by the seat of her pants" in her new role as foreign secretary.

No one is suggesting politicians have to be experts in a particular field to run a department. In fact it sometimes could be a hindrance.

Mr Reid is seen as a tough operator - a trouble-shooter who is capable of taking charge of a failing department and knocking a few heads together.


Policy experts, on the other hand, are often seen as lacking that killer instinct.

They are either too close to their brief to make tough decisions or suffer from tunnel vision, failing to appreciate the wider political context - or treading on more senior toes.

Acknowledged expert Frank Field was drafted into the government in 1997 to "think the unthinkable" on welfare reform, but quit in frustration 18 months later, after doing just that.

Estelle Morris, a former teacher, quit as education secretary in 2002 after admitting she was not up to the job.

Neither do the politicians in charge of government departments have to be professional administrators.

Bigger picture

The worst thing any minister can do, in the eyes of civil servants at least, is to "micromanage".

They are there for the bigger picture - to give political leadership, set the broad spending priorities and fight the department's corner in Cabinet and on TV. And, of course, carry the can when things go wrong.

But - with both Labour and the Conservatives now insisting politics is no longer about ideology but competence - the ability to manage effectively - is this enough?

This issue is now crucial in British politics.

Charles Clarke is the most recent minister to pay the price for systemic failures in his department.

'Underlying strength'

A breakdown in communications between the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directive led to the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation.

But the problem appeared to get worse after Mr Clarke found out about it.

Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics, argues that if Mr Clarke had spent more time "building up the underlying organisational strength" of the home office rather than drafting new legislation, he might have avoided his fate.

When Labour came to power there was much talk about shaking up the way the civil service operates but, after nine years, ministers have, inevitably, "gone native", argues Prof Dunleavy.

They accept the system, with all its faults, and do not spend enough time examining how it works.

They would rather devote their time to drafting eyecatching new laws than "getting the civil servants on side" and making sure their department functions correctly, Professor Dunleavy argues.

Capability review

Perhaps it is time to rethink what we expect from them, he suggests.

Or at least find a better way of measuring their performance and suitability for their jobs.

The head of the civil service Gus O'Donnell is launching a review of the ability of all governments to do their jobs - as part of Mr Blair's effort to improve the delivery of public services.

The review, based loosely on the comprehensive performance assessment to which local councils are subjected, will examine civil servants' skills and leadership capabilities.

But Sir Gus has stopped short of suggesting to the prime minister he and his ministers should be assessed as part of the capability review.

He reportedly joked to friends he was "not quite brave enough to suggest that".

The following comments reflect a balance of the views received so far.

The government is a 300 billion pound business, running UK plc. It's chief executive and financial director don't talk to each other and the heads of departments and incompetent and unqualified to carry out their jobs. They are spending our money and we are paying their wages, so as the shareholders we should be voting for better corporate governance and put an end to this incompetent charade.
Paul Nicholson, London

Is heading up government departments by politicians an example of the Peter Principle, whereby people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence?
jim, Chichester

Margaret Beckett has made a complete mess up of the Single Farm Payment when she was in charge of DEFRA with nearly 85% of English farmers in much hardship still waiting for money that they were promised 12 months ago. It is worrying that she has admitted to "flying by the seat of her pants" in matters of national security - hard hat anybody!
Helen, N Yorks

Your narrative says it all really - but with the addition of the comment which was being bandied about over many a pint throughout the country - 'What's Jack Straw done wrong..?' To the casual observer, UK foreign policy would seem to require extremely careful management, particularly at the present time, and for Margaret Beckett to admit that she is 'flying by the seat of her pants' hardly fills you with confidence.. These reshuffles are always perplexing to the man in the street - it does seem as though provided a mirror held under your nose mists up, then you are capable of running a government department - never mind what your background is. Whenever you hear the Prime Minister utter those words - 'He/she is the best person for the job' - you have to wonder against what criteria he makes that judgement - Tony Blair made precisely that comment about Peter Mandelson when he was shuffled off to Brussels - and the job hadn't even been identified at that time..!
David, London, UK

"With both Labour and the Conservatives now insisting politics is no longer about ideology but competence". Congratulations on encapsulating, in a single sentence, the greatest problem with British politics today. Managerial skills are irrelevant - we need dreamers in office, not administrators. What is the point in a politician who doesn't notice if they're running a government department (i.e. a country) or a paper supplies office?
Greg, Lancaster, UK

This musical chairs game makes me wonder whether ministers need even a casual knowledge of the workings of their departments. The view from the top seems to remain the same whether one is in charge of the military or say, education.
Kim, Glasgow

Why is it not mandatory to be professionally qualified to run at least some of the key government departments? After all they control budget worth hundreds of millions and also set medium-to-long term strategy. If a large conglomerate were run in this Mickey mouse manner, the shareholders would have revolted ages ago. This is quite a charade!
Arvie K, London, UK

Civil servants write their letters, their speeches, articles for newspapers, control their diaries and the information they receive. That's why ministers need a firm set of political beliefs to judge all that against and a vibrant Cabinet where ideas can be tested and co-ordinated. Otherwise they are the creatures of the civil service view of the world. Usually, and never more than now, ministers' main concentration is simply on their careers.
Harry, Lewes, England

Doesn't this all mean that democracy is now management and if that is the case then lets just get proper managers in rather than people with no experience. After all, you wouldn't expect Shell to be run by someone who has never worked in the oil business.
Roger Storer, London

It isn't exactly news that many of those tasked with awesome ministerial responsibilities have no expertise in, and sometimes no real interest in their work. So it isn't exactly a surprise they do it so badly, is it?
Milton A, Crawley, UK

Let's get Alan Sugar to select the next cabinet. At least the candidates will be put through their paces before they're given a job!
Lynne, Castleford

In US, the president can pick for cabinet unelected people who are qualified e.g. Kissinger, Colin Powell. Yes, Prime Minister (British 80s comedy) got it right - Sir Humphrey "Bernard, what choice does the prime minister really have, we have 650 MPs, about 350 are needed to form a government, of those about 1/3 are too young and callow, another 1/3 are too old and senile, leaving about 100 MPs to fill about 100 government posts, there's no choice at all" - Read Yes Minister / Prime Minister, Thatcher thought it very accurate!
Ian Jones, Miri, Malaysia (From Wales)

It's interesting that politics is one of the few jobs that requires no qualifications and is difficult to get any experience in, without being a politician. There's no other business in the world where that is allowable, so why is running the country the exception?
Charlie Stanhope, Sleaford, Lincs

The essential problem is the belief that "Senior Civil Servants can not be sacked". It is this dangerous nonsense which means the people actually responsible for the "Foreign Prisoner" problem go untouched. The minister has gone because as a politician he is accountable to us in this imperfect democracy. The senior civil servants of the Home Office who have failed to produce acceptable accounts for their massive budget get away with it all. They are part of a small select closed shop which actually run this country, swap the jobs among themselves and are completely untouchable by outsiders. While I agree they should not be sacked by politicians I believe they should be sackable by a Crown committee or by the Cabinet Secretary who is their boss.
Oliver, London

This looks like a move to protect the prime minister, or perhaps to ensure he still gets his way. Out: go people with experience, understanding and valuable judgements of their own- like Jack Straw, who pronounced unwarranted military action against Iran "nuts" and "inconceivable". In: come those inexperienced in their new field who will be easier to control (Margaret Beckett) and people who a few short years ago were nobody, owe their all to Tony and will do whatever he says even if they do it badly (Hazel Blears)
Tim Deegan, Langport, UK

Doesn't this constant rearranging of the cabinet suggest that ministers actually do very little of significance? If they really did contribute a great deal to their departments surely it would be impossible to move them around so often!
Harry, Cambridge, UK

Some people here appear to be labouring under two misapprehensions: 1) that it is necessary for the 'Chief Exec'; leader or whatever other term used, to be on intimate theoretical terms with the operation s/he is running. Does the Captain of a ship need to be the Chief Engineer and Head Chef as well? The prime requisite for a government minister is leadership - not a qualification in the work her/his dept does. 2) The vast, vast majority of 'large conglomerates' etc that some Blues supporters clearly drool over are run by Managers with zero specific business qualifications. Branson; Sugar etc etc.
Dave Ratchford, Nottingham UK

Your title should be 'Ministers: Experts or Prawns'. Most of them have less grey matter than your average crustacean, however.
Keith, Reading

The reshuffle we got this time isn't even what Blair had in mind the night before. Charles Clarke threw the plans into disarray by refusing whatever new job he was offered, and then Blair had to reshuffle his reshuffle on the fly. For instance, Alan Johnson, now at Education, had experience as a junior minister there previously, but he was actually supposed to replace Patricia Hewitt at Health. We know this because the DTI website was saying on Friday morning that he'd gone to Health, somebody having rewritten the web pages based on advance information and not caught up with the last-minute change of plan.
R Haigh,

Politicians ARE professionals. They are professional liars. They spend their whole public life doing it and are expert at it. Therefore to take on the responsibility of a Govt. Dept., about which they know nothing, and then start to talk with authority about that dept. they are doing what they know best - LYING! Welcome to the real world of politics.
Morgan, Hampstead/UK

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