Quote of the week
“Activities that are politically desirable…need to be distinguished from essential tasks.”
– Seventh Report of the UK Public Administration Committee
This report from the UK Public Administration Committee looks at the evolving role of Cabinet ministers in the U.K. system and is an interesting read alongside the new report released Monday that looks at the role of the MP in our own parliamentary system (It’s My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered at www.samaracanada.com).
The backdrop for the report is Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society project that aims to replace central design and government-delivered services with citizen-driven activity across sectors. One hoped for outcome is a smaller government with fewer ministers who perform more focused activities.
The report suggests that ministers spend too much time being a “departmental ambassador” and playing the media. It also notes that their parliamentary duties have grown and in some cases are a waste of time.
Of specific interest to public servants is the role that the report says ministers should play as heads of departments. It is unequivocal that ministers are “(g)etting unnecessarily involved in attempts to run their departments.” As the report says, “(v)ery few ministers have ever run anything.”
So what role should ministers play in the running of a department? The report suggests they have three core functions:
First, they set policy priorities; that is the leadership role that ministers have in a department. It is they who set direction based upon the priorities and direction of the government.
Second, they negotiate on behalf of the department before committees and formal meetings of cabinet.
Finally, “ministers must also ensure those charged with running the department, their senior civil servants, are able to do so, but they should not personally manage the department.”
The report provides useful guidance to any government.