On 16 September 2021, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Lord Norton of Louth to move that this House takes note of the case for enhancing the quality of government through the introduction of training in core leadership skills for (1) ministers, and (2) senior civil servants.

Recent developments

Government policy

On 15 June 2021, the Cabinet Office and civil service published a joint ‘Declaration on Government Reform’. Co-signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on behalf of the cabinet, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, on behalf of permanent secretaries, the declaration set out priorities for improvement across three main areas. These were listed as follows:

  • People: ensuring that the right people are working in the right places with the right incentives.
  • Performance: modernising the operation of government, being clear-eyed about our priorities, and objective in our evaluation of what is and is not working.
  • Partnership: strengthening the bond between ministers and officials, always operating as one team from policy through to delivery, and between central government and institutions outside it.

The declaration stated that improvement across government would require “leadership from ministers and civil servants—a willingness to challenge each other candidly, cooperate intensively and be open-minded about what needs to change—because the scale of what our recovery must involve is huge”.

On training in particular, the document said the Government would “invest in training for civil servants and for ministers, with high standards for online provision as well as the creation of a new physical campus”. It added that the Government would introduce a training programme for ministers, to include project and commercial skills. Civil service leaders would be encouraged to spend time in the private and third sectors and all senior appointments would be opened to public competition by default.

The declaration was accompanied by a list of 30 specific actions to be taken in 2021. Alongside the ambitions relating to the establishment of a new curriculum and training campus for government and the introduction of a training programme for ministers, listed actions included:

  • implementing capability-based pay, starting with the senior civil service (SCS);
  • setting a new performance management framework for the SCS—with targets to ensure visibility over delivery—alongside revised performance management arrangements for permanent secretaries;
  • revising guidance on cabinet committee attendance to ensure relevant senior officials attend and participate where appropriate, and to replicate across all relevant committees best practice on tracking actions and decisions;
  • holding extraordinary cabinet meetings at least once a year, bringing together cabinet and the permanent secretaries, to review progress on the Government’s key priorities;
  • completing a review of civil service governance, including consideration of the appropriate roles for senior officials, non-executive directors and ministers; and
  • completing a review of models of accountability for decisions, drawing on international best practice and experiences during the pandemic and taking account of the role and design of ministerial directions.

The Government said it would “work transparently, and report regularly” on progress against these actions.

In 2019, the Government launched the National Leadership Centre (NLC). This followed earlier work undertaken by Lord Grimstone of Boscobel. The NLC was set three objectives at launch:

  • Deliver a flagship leadership programme for around 100 senior public service leaders each year.
  • Create a digital platform to enable a thriving network of peer-learning and support for over 1,500 public sector leaders.
  • Lead high quality research to develop a better understanding of the relationships between leadership, well-being and productivity.

The NLC maintains a website in support of its role helping “senior public service leaders develop the skills, knowledge and networks required to address society’s most complex strategic challenges”. The Cabinet Office has published an external evaluation of NLC activity in its first year.

In August 2021, Lord True, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, confirmed the Government did not hold central records on professional development programmes undertaken by individual ministers. He said ministers were able to access advice on specific subjects, including professional development programmes, as required. Lord True reiterated that the ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ included a “commitment to ensuring ministers receive training in how to assess evidence, monitor delivery, and work effectively with civil service colleagues”. He said this work was underway.


On 15 June 2021, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, delivered a speech to mark the launch of the ‘Declaration on Government Reform’. This followed a speech entitled ‘the privilege of public service’, delivered a year earlier, in which Mr Gove had called for more training for both ministers and officials to meet present and future challenges.

Speaking to the declaration’s ambitions, he argued that effective government had previously been “bedevilled” by an “opacity in accountability, incoherence in reporting lines and a failure to be clear about what departments, ministers and permanent secretaries must deliver”. He suggested that changes for both officials and ministers would help overcome these issues:

Now, permanent secretaries will be liberated to deliver their essential responsibilities, and recognised, rewarded, for policy and delivery success. They will also be given the tools to ‘manage out’ poor performers and reward real achievement. The old rigidities of pay structures which incentivise churn, people moving on from job-to-job in pursuit of better rewards will go. The failure to consider past performance in post when considering promotion will end. The shuffling off of under-performing colleagues into new, and under-scrutinised, berths must no longer be tolerated.

And ministers too will accept greater responsibility and accountability. We will ensure we devote time and consideration to senior official appointments within our departments. Outcome delivery plans will be clear about what is demanded of us. We will commit to a training programme, so that we ourselves have a better understanding of project management and policy delivery.

Further to these changes, Mr Gove added:

We must be ready to create new structures in government to deliver particular policies and projects where the accountability is vested in a single lead minister and one senior responsible official—but where the delivery team is drawn from different departments and agencies. Give that team a single budget allocated to the task and give them a fixed deadline for delivery.

Calls for improved skills

Commission for Smart Government

Mr Gove’s speech was hosted by the Commission for Smart Government, a project of the GovernUp initiative supported by the Project for Modern Democracy. The commission is chaired by Lord Herbert of South Downs (Conservative) and counts other members of the House of Lords amongst its membership.

In July 2021, the commission published a report entitled ‘Strategic, Capable, Innovative, Accountable: Four Steps to Smarter Government’. This made a range of proposals aimed at improving leadership skills across government, with many informed by corporate and international experience. Under an overarching heading of ‘capable government’, specific commission recommendations in respect of ministers and senior civil servants included the following:

  • Transfer the role of minister for the civil service away from the prime minister, so it gets full-time attention in a separate cabinet-ranked role.
  • Make the Civil Service Commission a powerful talent management watchdog, instead of a narrow regulator of external recruitment, headed by someone with an external background.
  • Turn departmental boards into genuinely powerful bodies through which ministers develop effective policy, oversee delivery, and take key decisions on personnel.
  • Replace the permanent secretary role with a chief executive as the senior civil service post in departments, with a clear focus on strategy, execution, and organisational effectiveness.
  • Set up the Queen Elizabeth II School of Public Service, a world-leading executive training programme equivalent to leading business school offers in the private sector, with a campus base, in which aspiring civil servants, public sector leaders and politicians will be trained together, based on a redefined set of leadership requirements.

Institute for Government

In 2011, the Institute for Government published a report entitled ‘The Challenge of Being a Minister: Defining and Developing Ministerial Effectiveness’. It argued the quality and effectiveness of ministers matters for the quality of government, but that it “varies considerably”. On ministers’ preparation for office, it observed that ministers were unlikely to have leadership experience:

The existing literature on the topic underlines how ill-suited and under-prepared most ministers are for their posts. Most come to the role without adequate training and experience, often with little expertise in the subject matter of their department, knowing that the insights required to perform the job effectively may only be gained through experience. It is hard to think of another profession or career where an individual could rise to the very top, and assume a position of heavy responsibility, having had no previous acquaintance with that line of work.

The report’s authors noted that a lack of formal preparation was a consistent theme in interviews held with those who had held ministerial office. They added there was also a “widespread belief among MPs that political skills learnt in the legislature are sufficient for success in a ministerial post”. In addition, the authors noted that once in office ministers were not subject to “sustained development or advice” or “any appraisal of their performance, unlike virtually any other public or private sector organisation”.

The report concluded that although ministers were not conventional chief executives, they had to “lead their departments, approving all key decisions and public statements; develop and set out policy objectives; personally take the lead when driving forward reform programmes; monitor progress; and handle correspondence and case work”.

The institute’s 2011 report was followed by additional content published in 2015, 2017 and 2018. The institute has also published a series of interviews with selected former ministers, in which they reflect on their time in government and make suggestions for improved support. The institute continues to offer confidential and tailored training for ministers.

In 2017, the institute published a report entitled ‘Professionalising Whitehall’. It welcomed reforms to professionalise key government activities within the civil service but noted these had been held back by a “turnover of leadership, the constraints placed on civil service leaders, a lack of resources and the absence of stable funding”.

Most recently, the institute largely welcomed the ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ on the day of its publication, though it warned the statement of intent should be judged on outcomes in time. It said:

[…] overall this is a statement very much to be welcomed. It identifies the right areas for reform and includes a broadly credible list of actions for the Government to pursue. An end to hostilities between ministers and civil servants would also be a good thing. However its success must be judged by how long the momentum for reform lasts, whether senior political attention persists—including whether [Michael] Gove stays in a key post able to give this momentum—and how much change really happens over the coming years.

Parliamentary reports

Parliamentary committees have long commented on the relative skillsets of ministers and senior civil servants and how this can affect the relationship between them. In a report published in March 2007, for example, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee observed there appeared to be dissatisfaction with the leadership skills shown by ministers and senior officials. It said:

Former ministers are heard to complain that civil servants lack the delivery skills, managerial competence and commitment to policy success that are demanded of them; while former civil servants are heard to complain that ministers do not take their advice, fail to provide consistent leadership and are obsessed with new initiatives of doubtful practicality.

In a separate report published in August of that year, the committee urged improved skills training for both groups. It concluded:

There should be a closer connection between skills policies and work to increase departments’ capabilities, and skills drives should be backed by a clear ministerial commitment at least equivalent to the commitment shown towards civil service efficiency savings. As part of that ministerial commitment, there should be a continuation of the recent expansion in ministerial training and development, and this should be visible. As departmental leaders, ministers should embody a culture of continuing professional development.

Subsequent committee reports have considered the training needs of ministers and/or senior officials. These include:

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Cover image by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pixabay.