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Shaping the ministerial mindset

28 February 2024



A new book offers a practice-based account of how ministers perform their roles and exercise leadership. One of the chapters examines how ministers engage in the process of identity formation as new ministers and how their mindset adapts. Ministers draw on their alternative identities—as parliamentarians, as constituency representatives, and as family members—as resources of resistance to departmental pressures and the discipline of the bureaucracy.

The vulnerability of the new identity

Former ministers are open about their vulnerability at the point of arrival and meeting their ministerial office. This is a key moment in the shaping of the ministerial mindset. Their status has changed, and they are now with people who have more experience of this transition than they do themselves.

The private office is where ministers are introduced to the government culture. They are faced with a mass of introductory reading. But they are performing as ministers—sometimes in crisis situations and certainly in public—from their first day of office. They face the challenge of deciding how early to assert their priorities. Ministers consciously strive to carve out space for themselves, their constituencies and parliament, and may try to address aspects of departmental culture which they find unhelpful or inadequate. They seek to assert their own expectations and establish routines which work for them. Their ‘ministerial mindset’ seeks to adapt to the new challenges.

In doing this, ministers are unconsciously practising what the leadership and organisational literature calls ‘identity work’. Identity work is a dynamic process of interaction, struggling with and sometimes against the machine of departments. This is not the same as saying that ministers have a view that the civil service is a conspiracy to stop them doing what they want to do. Most do not. It is simply a reflection of the very real tensions that exist when activist-minded ministers take on their roles within departments which have a history that predates them.

Performing as a minister from day one

There is no real opportunity to adjust to ministerial life gently. Even where ministers know the policy area, the sudden confrontation with the detail of policy in government can be a shock.

The first 100 days provides an opportunity for early definition of the role, deciding priorities and communicating direction. Former ministers have attested to the importance of definitional clarity. Other advice from former ministers during this period includes:

  • establish trust with your permanent secretary.
  • build a ministerial team—or at least establish authority.
  • meet with major stakeholders.
  • decide how you will behave.
  • understand the money.
  • keep running list of band aids and quick wins.
  • remember you are a politician.

However, ministers do not necessarily know precisely what they want to do with a department or a policy area when they arrive. Sometimes that requires intellectual confidence to avoid rushing into long-range decisions. There can be a sense-making process that takes some time to assess the environment. It can depend on interactions with others and requires the confidence that a minister will be in post for a reasonable length of time.

Some former ministers have argued that new ministers should read documents, listen to expert opinion and ask questions. They should refrain from taking positive or negative action at the beginning of a new term of office, unless absolutely essential. Others have argued that that sense-making process may need to be accelerated. New ministers need to master their brief and think about their legacy as soon as they are in the job.

Carving out space for other roles

Ministers face constant pressures on their diaries and the need to negotiate their ‘role conflicts’ in respect of constituency, parliamentary, and family time.

Many former ministers felt that civil servants did not really understand the importance of parliament and how ministerial careers could be derailed by mistakes or poor performance in the house, or that parliament could be a useful source of intelligence and information. Alternatively, some civil servants saw ministers as just playing a ‘functional’ role and answering for their department before parliament.

The bottom line

Ministers are not simply the object of a socialisation process. They actively engage in a dynamic process of identity formation as new ministers, commencing with their arrival in their ministerial offices, their engagement with their private office, their initial briefing, and in choosing whether or not to assert their priorities in their first few months. Their mindset adapts. They seek to establish their own routines and carve out space for themselves and their priorities.

Want to read more?

Andrews. Leighton. (2024). “Shaping the ministerial mindset” in Ministerial Leadership, Palgrave Macmillan, pp 129–158.

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Published Date: 28 February 2024