Parts of the system of government in Britain are stupid. There, I’ve said it. In particular the system for appointing ministers and their aides. Roles appear to get offered around like candy.
This is how it doesn’t work.
A minister can be a “minister for education” one week, and a “minister for employment” the next week (as happened with my former colleague Jim Knight). Essentially, the minister jumps between entire sectors on the whim of the PM. The problem with this method of bandying out jobs is that ministers become jacks of all trades but masters of none.
How is it possible to go from being an expert on education in the United Kingdom (and doing a proficient job, having accumulated time and thus experience in the post), to being an expert on employment? I’m sure each position is a demanding one, and each requires unique skills. Obviously some skills used in one position can be transferred across disciplines. But in-depth knowledge of education does not translate into in-depth knowledge of employment.
If my employer told me to start designing web pages, I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the knowledge or experience. I do have some transferable skills (I’m a graphic designer), but I don’t have the requisite knowledge of HTML and CSS. If I had to, I could talk a good game regarding web design (just as many ministers talk a good game), but I don’t have the in-depth knowledge a professional web designer has. I would be flailing around in that role, at least for the first few weeks.
Is it any wonder that the government is flailing around now?
I think the cause of the problem is a knee-jerk reaction from a Prime Minister under intense media pressure. The scenario goes as follows:
1. The media, principally the tabloid press – quickly followed by the so called broadsheets – publish a glut of articles regarding the perceived inefficiencies, or scandalous behaviour of a department or its individuals.
2. The Prime Minister reads these articles. Says he’ll look into it. Looks into it. Probably finds little, if anything, wrong. But to appease the baying hounds of the media, and to save his own neck, he moves ministers from job to job. Or out of a job.
The effect of this shuffling is, surely, that those most suited to a position are moved to departments where they have little or no experience. All the expertise they have acquired serving in their former role is wasted. The same can, most likely be said for the person who filled their former role.
So, you end up with two ministers who know nothing about their new jobs, while simultaneously being experts on the jobs of their successors.
Who’s In Charge?
Perhaps we should ask ourselves this: who’s in charge of the country?
To me the answer is the media. If a government reacts based on the content of headlines, then it is the headlines and media publishers themselves who are affecting change.
The media has an undue influence on us all. For evidence of this you need only go back a few years to the MMR scare. The erroneous opinion of a single doctor was enough to send the tabloids into a frenzy, terrify the public, and ultimately cause children to die, and possibly spark an epidemic.
Getting back to the issue in hand: is there a solution to the problem of government ministerial jobs?
Politics is a transient business; who knows for sure who’s going to be elected and when?
Clearly, a job cannot be guaranteed beyond the electoral term. But if a minister has to be moved on, how about promoting from within that department? Unless the entire department is beyond redemption, corrupt to its roots, or malfunctioning spectacularly, surely the natural successor is a person who already works within the department, and knows its strengths and weaknesses?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure one exists. The government needs to go for a metaphorical walk, and have a good think about how it does things.
All this shuffling surely weakens their hand?