Danish pastries all round, advises handbook for first-time ministers

A new manual offering the top ten tips for new members of Government reads like something from The Thick of It. Brian Brady investigates

Sunday 06 February 2011 01:00

Some of the most powerful politicians in the UK have been presented with an "idiots' guide" on how to run the country. Scores of coalition ministers, who had no experience of government before last May, have attended a series of "induction workshops" on the workings of Parliament, "leadership development", "action learning for ministers", and "expert finance and governance briefings", which taught them how to read their own department's accounts.

But their training materials also reveal that David Cameron's ministerial team has been coached on how to win the love and admiration of its staff and how to avoid working at weekends. The Handbook for Ministers, published as the coalition took its first faltering steps last May, was produced as "an informal guide to help new ministers work through the challenges of office". Packed with sage advice and "top ten tips on being a minister", it has become the bible for the new MPs struggling to run the country.

The manual, written by Rod Clark, principal and chief executive of the National School of Government (NSG), added: "This feeling can lead to existential angst ('Why am I here?'), cynicism about the job ('I'm just an autograph machine') and rising levels of stress." But, despite the NSG's best intentions, the material produced for its ministerial clients has more than a whiff of The Thick of It, the BBC political satire about hapless ministers desperately trying to keep control of their own departments – and their own careers.

Above all, Mr Clark warns of the dangers of "private office anxiety syndrome", in which a minister suddenly becomes "heavily dependent on what can be a group of relatively junior and relatively inexperienced strangers" in their ministerial office.

New coalition ministers are advised to start team-building on their first morning, with the advice to "buy Danish pastries for everybody".

However, the minister can make their grand, Santa-like entrance only once they have managed to "convince reception that you are, in fact, a new minister and hence allowed in".

The ideal Day One timetable also includes instructions to "write a quick 'I'm really looking forward to working with everybody' message and ask the private secretary to email it out" and "go for a team lunch".

The manual is one of 23 ministerial training documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation. They detail courses including "executive coaching" and "action learning for ministers", which advocate "small groups of ministers (three or four) from different departments getting together on a regular basis, for 1-2 hours, to discuss and progress departmental leadership priorities".

The handbook also reflects ministers' perpetual fears of being swamped by the overwhelming pressure of work in their departments. It devotes lengthy passages to the pressing need for them to master the diary which lays out their workload, appointments and engagements far into the future. "Coach your diary manager into brilliance and then hang on to them for dear life," the manual advises. "One Secretary of State recounted with some exasperation how he'd heard a junior minister explain with great pride that he never let the department touch his 'real' diary, which was the one in his pocket. This is a guaranteed recipe for chaos."

The manual also urges caution over the management of red boxes, the cases used by ministers to bring documents home to work on. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was accused of "clocking off" early last week, after it emerged that his officials would not allow any extra work into his red box after 3pm on weekdays.

But it has now emerged that coalition ministers are actively encouraged to limit the amount of documents they are forced to plough through outside working hours. "If you want it to – or if you allow it to – the department will fill your weekends and evenings with red boxes," the manual warns. "The good news: your lifestyle is not on a statutory footing. You can find the working rhythm that suits you and which keeps you – and others around you – reasonably sane... Abolish weekend red boxes."

The guide also insists that ministers do not become prisoners in their own offices. In a section entitled "Decide on a lifestyle", it points out: "You have a duty to the taxpaying public to keep yourself in good physical and mental condition. EBuild regular time into the diary for the gym, lunch with friends, broadening your intellectual horizons, whatever relaxes and stimulates you It is the advice given to all top leaders."

Almost 90 novices, including equalities minister Lynne Featherstone, benefited from NSG training within the first two months of the coalition's life.

But details of that advice were received with disdain by many politicians and academics yesterday. Several former ministers, including Tessa Jowell and Geoffrey Robinson, said they had got by without any formal training, and instead stressed the value of learning on the job – and maintaining good relationships with departmental staff. Most of them had to get by with Labour grandee Gerald Kaufman's semi-serious book How to Be a Minister.

Baroness Browning, a former Conservative agriculture minister, recalled: "Yes, Minister was spot on. The civil service training was very good, but there were officials who tried to put things past you. When the Conservatives left office in 1997, a few of the things I had refused popped up again."

George Jones, professor of government at the London School of Economics, said he was "appalled" at the thought of ministers being trained for the job. He added: "New MPs should observe how ministers perform in the Commons. They should not be experts in specific areas of policy or act as managers. We pay their civil servant large salaries with many perks to carry out those functions."

How to be a minister: Official top 10 tips for success in Whitehall

1. Enjoy it! If you do, it will inspire others as well.

2. Your diary secretary is your new best friend.

3. Prep, prep, prep. Preparation is vital.

4. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Don't put decisions off – they're the essence of being a minister.

5. Prioritisation. The department's priorities and definition of what is important may differ from your own.

6. Explain Parliament to your private office.

7. Keep your political edge. Don't get cut off from colleagues.

8. Communicate with your Secretary of State – either through structured catch-up sessions or more ad hoc.

9. Special Advisers and Permanent Secretaries are not just for the Secretary of State.

10. Make space for families – eg don't have red boxes delivered at 7am on a Saturday morning.

Westminster ways

"It is hard to be a successful minister if you haven't got a good relationship with your private office. You can have all sorts of political attributes and experience, but what is understated are the management skills that allow you to win the respect of your civil servants. A couple of the coalition ministers are quite impressive, but they all look so knackered."

Tessa Jowell, Former Culture Secretary

"When I arrived I had to ask why there was an entry called 'gym session' in the diary and I was told my predecessor always liked to go to the gym at that time. It was back in the diary the next week, so I had to tell my staff that I would never go to the gym, no matter how many times they scheduled it in. I never faced any problem that I hadn't had to deal with when I was a councillor. That was the best training I had for the job."

Kevan Jones, Former Defence minister

"I didn't feel I needed any training, as I had been around for so long and they all regarded me as an old hand. I didn't buy any Danish pastries – I'd expect them to be bought for me. The best training I had was the advice to make a good impression on the ministerial drivers, as they were the ones who got to know about everything."

Geoffrey Robinson, Former Paymaster General

"The FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] smothers you in love and support and gives the impression that any comment by a new foreign secretary or minister is wiser than anything that Talleyrand or Metternich ever said. As a result, unless you really know your subject, they just take you over. The day a minister understands or can read a department's accounts will be a miracle: the Rosetta Stone is easier to read than Whitehall finances."

Denis MacShane, Former Foreign Office minister

"I do recall going to a day (or maybe a half-day) training shortly after becoming a minister. I think [Cabinet Secretary] Gus O'Donnell spoke at it. I don't remember anything about pastries. I think it was a reasonable attempt but the best guide is still Gerald Kaufman's book ['How to Be a Minister']."

Pat McFadden, Former Cabinet Office minister

"As far as I know, there were not any training courses for ministers."

Alistair Darling, Former Chancellor of the Exchequer

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