Former cabinet secretary recommends adequately training government ministers and allowing them to remain in their roles.

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A former cabinet secretary has suggested that prime ministers should enroll their cabinet members in a school of government to enhance strategic thinking in Whitehall and put an end to the frequent change of ministers.

According to Mark Sedwill, who oversaw the civil service during the leadership of Boris Johnson and Theresa May, a successful government requires continuity of personnel rather than a constant rotation of inexperienced ministers in different roles.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on strategic thinking in government, Sedwill criticised the “tendency to reset the clocks and have a year zero” every time new ministers are appointed.

Referring to the habit of politicians of making media announcements in order to dominate the headlines and appear active in government, Sedwill highlighted the “huge pressure because of the ‘grid phenomenon’”, adding: “Those [announcements] inevitably aren’t strategic, tend to be quite short term and aren’t always aligned with the other existing policy.”

In recent years, there has been an abnormally high number of changes in leadership within departments. Johnson selected a large group of new ministers following mass resignations, while Liz Truss’s seven-week tenure in Downing Street saw a brief rotation of ministers.

Sedwill recommended that any future prime minister should select competent ministers, provide them with thorough training, and allow them to serve in their positions for as long as possible.

He remarked that the United Kingdom has a tendency to change ministers more frequently compared to other countries. The cabinet is also twice the size of the US president’s, and many prominent ministers lack relevant experience when initially appointed.

The ex-high-ranking government employee advocated for the establishment of a school of government on a separate campus. This institution would allow for “up-and-coming” individuals in positions such as ministers, MPs, and officials to connect and socialize.

As prime minister Liz Truss had a short-lived cadre of ministers during her brief term in Downing Street.View image in fullscreen

When asked how to nurture the strategic decision-making abilities of ministers, he replied by stating that it should be taught to them. Currently, ministers are not explicitly educated on government operations and are instead left to learn through trial and error.

“Having political skills is essential for a minister’s success, but it is not the only skill required. Governance skills are also necessary, but they are not innate and must be taught.”

“We do not provide ministerial training, however, if our goal is for them to be strategic leaders, it is essential to allocate time for strategic thinking.”

In 2021, Johnson stated his intention to “fund education for government employees and ministers, with strict guidelines for online offerings and the development of a new physical facility”.

Since 2020, the government has been implementing a “government campus” initiative to provide civil servants with training opportunities. This program offers both online and in-person courses for officials and also includes the Leadership College for Government.

Unfortunately, there is currently no alternative available for the National School of Government, which was shut down in 2012 by the coalition government. This school served as a permanent location for government training.

On Tuesday, Sedwill provided testimony for the investigation into the government’s strategic decision making, which was initiated by the liaison committee. This committee consists of chairs from select committees and is responsible for holding the prime minister accountable.

Former permanent secretary to the Home Office, David OmandView image in fullscreen

During his testimony to the committee, ex GCHQ leader Sir David Omand advocated for abolishing the use of WhatsApp by the government during times of crisis. He expressed concern that while the platform may be convenient for casual conversations, it is not suitable for important decision-making.

Prior to serving as the permanent secretary of the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, Omand held a leadership role in the UK intelligence service. In light of the handling of the pandemic, Omand expressed criticism towards government conduct and advocated for the use of “proper process” in handling future crises.

According to his testimony, ministers and officials frequently engaged in “gossip” and “informal exchanges” while convening for cabinet meetings. This helped relieve tension when pressure had intensified.

He expressed that it is reasonable for WhatsApp messages to serve a similar purpose during lockdowns when in-person interactions were restricted. However, based on the evidence revealed in the Covid-19 inquiry, it appears that these exchanges (excluding the hateful misogyny) had shifted to being the primary method of achieving certain results, rather than just sharing casual conversation.

The justification for Covid is no longer valid, and may never have been. It is vital to have a sound decision-making procedure in order to effectively navigate a crisis.

He stated that it is not worthwhile to spend time identifying strategic opportunities and threats if there is no proper process in place for evaluating decisions based on strategic goals and making necessary adjustments when necessary.


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