Learning how to be a minister

My compulsory reading at the moment is Instruction To Deliver by Michael Barber, who was appointed by then prime minister Tony Blair to lead the fight to transform Britain’s public services.

'1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die' - packed with critiques of the most important and best-selling works fiction ever written - includes one of my top favourites: 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway. This modern parable has inspired me since I read it the first time as a teenager. I have reread it many times, especially in moments of defeat. It has helped me never to give up, with its underlying message that men and women prove their worth by facing and overcoming challenges.

The old man, when tested to the limits, shows the ability of the human spirit to endure hardship and suffering in order to achieve his dream. After winning last month's election a friend told me: "You do not have to reread 'The Old Man and the Sea' this time."

She was wrong. I will be rereading it over and over again as I will be need its inspiration and sustenance more than ever to persevere and not be defeated by the many tough challenges I have to face as the Minister for Education and Employment.

But for the time being there are other books that I am delving into, three books that you must read when you become a minister: 'Yes, Minister', 'How to be a Minister' and 'Instruction to Deliver'.

Jonathan Lynn - who co-authored the British satirical sitcom 'Yes, Minister' with Anthony Jay 33 years ago - said that he got his inspiration from his days as a student at Cambridge University: "All of the main debaters there, aged 20, were the most pompous, self-satisfied, self-important bunch of clowns that I've ever clapped eyes on. They were all behaving as if they were on the government front bench, and 20 years later they all were: Michael Howard; John Selwyn Gummer; Kenneth Clarke. I thought at that point that the only way that I could ever contribute to politics is making fun of the politicians." I am also revisiting Gerald Kaufman's 'How to be a Minister', where he shares his failures and successes as a Minister with examples of how to do and how not to do things as a Minister. He gives advice on how to run and not be run by the departments and entities that fall under your responsibility; on how to avoid getting into trouble with your Prime Minister and on how to never forget that every Minister is an ex-minister waiting to happen. "One of the worst things you can do as a Minister is to fall under the impression that you will be in office forever."

My compulsory reading at the moment is Instruction To Deliver by Michael Barber, who was appointed by then prime minister Tony Blair to lead the fight to transform Britain's public services. I was lucky to meet Barber 16 years ago when he was the chief advisor of education minister David Blunkett and we had a very useful meeting on how to draw up and implement reforms in education.

In his 'Instruction To Deliver' Barber talks of the need to develop talent management programmes for ministers. "Perversely, it seems to be the case that whereas for any other top leadership job careful selection, development, coaching and mentoring would be absolutely basic, a minister is expected to step fully formed (and informed) into an extremely demanding role on day one."

  He recommends the following curriculum for a ministerial development programme:

-           What to expect of government structures and how they can be changed.

-           How policy should be made.

-           How to stay the course when the going gets tough.

-           How to explain simply and clearly what you are doing, why you are doing it and how.

-           How not to confuse activity with action so ensure you make time for reflection and thinking.

-           How to decide after careful consideration.

-           How to find time to get to the frontline and listen to the people whose lives are shaped by your decisions.

-           How to create effective teams through building guiding coalitions.

-           How to hold a meeting where you sum up key decisions and whose job it is to implement them.

-           How to deal with parliament.

-           Learning from disastrous pieces of policy-making and implementation in the past.

-           How to manage the media and communications.

Barber says there are no short-cuts to achieve government's priorities. Blair's decisive and strong leadership proved his biggest failing: "He always had a tendency... to believe that in the end, through an act of his own personal will and the exercise of his own formidable powers of persuasion, he could achieve almost anything."

Ken Follett, reviewing Barber's book, says of his advice to ministers: "Being inclusive is not the same as being weak." Ministers must consult, iron out the snags, build up support for their plans and then be unstoppable in the execution of them. "Tyrannical leaders, in business and politics and war, fail to anticipate problems. This is because few people dare to point out the shortcomings of their plans, and those who do are usually ignored. Genuinely strong leaders know that criticism can only help them do better."

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education and Employment