Managing as a minister

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Daniel Devine; John Boswell; Jessica Smith

June 30, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at how personal style and gender norms affect leadership in government.

This guest paper by the University of Southampton reveals patterns in ministerial leadership styles that have profound impacts on the relationship between ministers and civil servants. It draws from over 100 interviews with former ministers – from across the Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and Johnson governments – in the IfG’s unique Ministers Reflect archive. The paper identifies two distinct styles of ministerial management and leadership of civil servants – and finds evidence that male and female ministers adopt different approaches. Transactional style: The minister sees the civil service as a challenge to be handled, a policy making resource to be optimised or a political risk to be contained. Transformational style: The minister sets out a shared objective and vision for the department and works with the civil service by building mutual trust, respect and understanding. There is evidence that “women ministers are…somewhat more likely to adopt transformational approaches”, with this particularly the case for more recently appointed ministers. Around half of the women ministers interviewed by the IfG were more transformational in style – compared to just a third of male ministers. Previous occupation also plays a key role, as ministers with experience of leading businesses tend to be more transactional in their approach. The report argues that neither style is better, and recommends that civil servants prepare for new ministers by rejecting a “one-size fits all” approach and developing a more varied set of resources or ‘playbooks’ to support transitions given high ministerial churn. It also says that prime ministers should focus on diversity in approaches to leadership when making ministerial appointments, as ministerial teams and the government as a whole can benefit from a greater diversity of approaches to ministerial leadership.