Executive motion - what our ministers have in store

3 Jun 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Jun 2016

The first half of a broad look of the challenges faced by the ministers in each of Stormont's new departments.

It might be impossible, yet, to judge the recently-ended Stormont mandate.

To many it will have felt like treading water, at best, with Northern Ireland’s economy stuttering along at a time of global stagnation; divisive social issues not enjoying progress; and other problems, such as a collapsing health service, being kicked into the long grass.

How good or bad the past five years have been will probably not become clear for some time.

However, it does seem clear that the coming mandate is a very important one for the Assembly, and for Northern Ireland.

New policy will be driven by our new Executive. While it should have to face a much stronger opposition than before, now the government does not consist of 90% of MLAs, this greater oversight will hopefully be effective in driving up standards, both in terms of policy ideas but also in terms of implementation.

Having the two largest parties now in almost total control should also lead to a clearer vision (for good or bad) between the ministers around the table.

Some thoughts on a good minister

In May 2011, the Institute for Government (IfG) wrote a paper call The Challenge of Being a Minister. It was based on lengthy conversations with former ministers, civil servants, and SpAds about what it takes to be a good minister.

The conclusions should be treated as necessarily limited because – as the paper itself free admits – being a minister is not a science of cause and effect.

However, its observations are worth considering. The report highlights a number of traits – “Identikit of an ideal minister” - as being good indicators about whether someone will make a good minister or not, including:

• Sets clear goals

• Makes decisions; has good judgment

• Prepares and prioritises

• Listens

• Can learn quickly from experience

• Has personal resilience and stamina

• Copes well and maintains good relationships under pressure

• Knows how to motivate ministers, civil servants and to use a department

• Has authority within Government and externally with Parliament, the media and the public

• Achieves objectives for change

Some of these are unsurprising - while “achieves objectives for change” is perhaps too obvious to mention – but the overall tone identifies someone who has clear aspirations without being zealous; the ability to delegate and administer, rather than micromanage; and a broad set of personal skills to manage important relationships while still being decisive.

It should be noted that the paper’s foreword was written by then IfG Director Baron Adonis, a former government minister, whose own experience tallies with some aspects identified as good preparation for running a department (including being a SpAd).

For those who want further reading, the IfG has a number of other publications in this area, including Ministers Reflect from this March.

Stormont faces, new and old

What should we expect from our own team of new ministers? And what pitfalls do they face?

Executive Office – Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness are a nearly-new combination in their joint roles as head of the Executive. Herein personal skills and managing relationships are at a premium – they have to keep things civil with each other, and they both have a job to do managing those within their own parties who are uncomfortable at being in government with a party whose nature clashes so fundamentally with their own.

Striking this balance might even be more difficult now – Justice aside – this truly is a DUP/Sinn Fein government, as opposed to a grand coalition.

Keeping the DUP moving forward with Sinn Fein and away from revolt was Peter Robinson’s great skill as First Minister.

One of the reasons Arlene Foster got a clean run as his successor was because she seems a good bet to find the correct balance in her decision making to keep everyone, if not delighted, at least satisfied.

Economy – Simon Hamilton said all the right things as health minister but was not in post long enough, or at the right time given he saw out the end of the mandate, to make the sweeping changes that are necessary and which he advocated honestly.

This is his third ministerial post despite still being in his 30s and with some experience of working outside of politics on his CV. He has risen quickly from within party ranks but here he comes under a different political pressure. The DUP talks itself up as an economically savvy party and again they control that department. NI’s economy went nowhere fast in the past five years and a repeat of that would be troublesome.

How much effect the Minister for the Economy can have on the state of jobs and enterprise and personal wealth locally is itself an interesting question with a very complicated answer but the DUP needs something to show for its talk here – setting clear goals, and achieving objectives for change, as per the IfG. Under the new outcomes-based approach to government Mr Hamilton will have to pick his targets well and then he will have to hit them.

Health – Michelle O’Neill drew the short straw and got landed with the biggest burden with smallest chance of any political success.

If you are not convinced about the extent of the crisis within HSC then ask yourself why easily the largest department – with a budget roughly equal to all others combined – was chosen dead last during the ministerial carve up.

Ms O’Neill will need all the qualities of Adonis and more if she is going to be a successful health minister – and, even if she is successful, she is likely to face a public outcry. Personal resilience should certainly come at a premium.

The line of least resistance for any health minister will be to make small adjustments, rather than the required sweeping but currently deeply unpopular reforms, and hope the service does not capitulate before you leave office.

That is a grim assessment but, as a general point, the reality is that wider circumstances are probably the biggest factor in someone having a successful tenure in ministerial office. Steering a ship is much tougher in choppy waters.

We will take a look at the remaining departments next week.

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