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How ministers learn

26 March 2024



A quirk of the Westminster system is that ministers invariably have to learn on the job. An article in Public Administration analyses 114 research interviews with former ministers. It answers the questions: how do their learning styles differ? and what do these differences tell us about the way executive government functions? The article identifies six distinct learning styles and assesses the implications for public servants that arise from how ministers adjust to the challenges of political office.

A framework for learning

Ministers operate in a complex, haphazard and changeable political environment. There has been little systematic focus on how individuals get to grips with these challenges on-the-job. Any attention paid to ministerial learning has tended to be inductive and piecemeal, focused on outlining the day-to-day routines of ministers or identifying the challenges they face.

The article uses the following framework for discerning patterns of similarity and difference in how ministers go about learning-on-the-job.

Epistemic learning refers to learning about the technical and substantive detail of a policy problem. For the work of a minister, epistemic learning works as a good shorthand for being on top of the brief. Ministers face two key dilemmas in this regard. One, when new to a post, is how to get to grips with the substance of a new portfolio. The other, once settled in post, is how to take expert advice on new evidence and developments in the area.

Learning through hierarchy is learning “how things work around here”. For a new minister, the initial dilemma is one of how to project authority in a context where they do not yet know how government really works. Once familiar with government, the ongoing dilemma is how to manage a department.

Learning through bargaining is the knowledge gained when negotiating with stakeholders in the policy process. For a minister, the bargaining is both inward and outward. Inward in terms of relationships within the political court and the negotiations about priorities for government. Outward with the exchange that occurs with key advocates and stakeholders in relation to the portfolio.

Reflexive learning is the conscious effort to learn through deliberation and reflection on practice. Opening up to the benefits of reflection would seem to risk exposing weakness and unreadiness to political rivals. The dilemma for ministers is how to glean insight without undermining their authority.

Six learning styles

The article analyses 114 interviews conducted with Westminster ministers in the UK. The interviews were semi-structured, focused on the overarching question of “What makes a good Minister?” The analysis identifies six prominent learning styles.

The incremental learner is in keeping with tradition of “muddling through” via Westminster norms and conventions. Incremental ministers say they get on top of their brief by placing their faith in the civil service. Learning through hierarchy is seen as a relational activity with ministers privileging the development of personal connections across government and other sectors.

The risk-averse learner is the inverse of the incremental learner. For these ministers, the priority is always to protect their reputation as they get to grips with the job and master its challenges. Risk-averse ministers prioritise epistemic learning through trusted filters. They are also reluctant to engage in learning through bargaining.

The managerial learner approaches their role through the prism of prior experience in the business world. These ministers get on top of their challenges by applying ideas and practices borrowed from the private sector. Their preference is to modernise systems of advice and support. A particular emphasis is on the quality of evidence about performance and targets.

The creative learner embraces ideas about transformational leadership, with a focus on positive communication and fostering a communal culture in the workplace. These ministers favour approaches to epistemic learning that are hands-on, practical, experiential. For example, when taking on the challenge of a new portfolio, they prioritise meeting with frontline staff or taking field trip.

The instrumental learner prefers to shortcut the learning process to get things done as soon as possible. These ministers prioritise getting on top of their portfolios by voraciously reading and preparing. They are, by inclination and/or training, policy wonks, intensely interested in the detail. Ministers in this category tend to take a dim view of reflexive learning.

Instinctive learners are ministers who embrace a “command and control” view of their role based on the traditional Westminster model. They prefer to foster a “debating society” to help with epistemic learning. They expect advice to be clearly filtered and prefer not to be bogged down with detail. These ministers express wariness about being controlled by the civil service and prefer to assert their authority.

The bottom line

The analysis reveals patterns in the beliefs, experiences, and motivations that underly distinct approaches to governing. The distinctions in learning style can help to better understand how ministers approach relationships, develop skills, and acquire information to help them make key decisions and run their departments.

Want to read more?

Learning to govern: A typology of ministerial learning styles – John Boswell, Jessica C. Smith, Daniel Devine and Jack Corbett, Public Administration, March 2024

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Published Date: 26 March 2024