JEP article: What it’s like being a new minister

This is the text of an article published in the JEP on Saturday Aug 20th 2022

A few years ago I lined up with hundreds of other cyclists to start an 85 mile organised cycling event through the Pennines. As we waited to get going we were regaled by pounding dance music and a motivational speaker who attempted to energise us for the demanding ride ahead. Just before we set off he added a final thought: “Remember, nobody forced you to do this”. 

I thought of that about three days after becoming a minister as my diary filled up with meetings, my head spun with acronyms, and an endless stream of briefing documents arrived in my inbox. Nobody forced me to do this. But you know what? The truth is, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. A bit like that cycling event, for the first few miles the adrenaline keeps you going, the newness is daunting but invigorating, and you’re still in blissful ignorance of the hills that lie ahead. 

When standing for election one of my main commitments was to get things done. I had a long career as a TV producer. By the end of my time at the BBC I had a pretty good handle on my job. Give me a new project and I knew what to do to make it happen. Getting things done in politics is obviously a whole different ball game.

Let’s say I’ve decided I want to improve the public footpath network – bringing back into use blocked or abandoned paths (note – this is an example for illustrative purposes only). Do I just tell an officer to go and make it happen? If so, an officer from which department – the Environment Minister has officers working in Natural Environment, Regulation (Planning) and the SPPP (Strategic Policy Planning and Performance) departments. Where does the money come from to make it happen? Do I need legal advice? Should I consult with the Infrastructure Minister and the Comité des Connétables? Does it need a new policy or a new law or is it something that can be achieved with a ministerial order? Or even supplementary planning guidance? 

I may have exaggerated the multiplicity of options somewhat – some of the answers are reasonably straightforward – but I hope the point is made. The business of making something happen in government is complex and can be baffling for a newcomer. It’s not necessarily that the levers don’t exist, or that they’re badly designed, it’s just a lack of knowledge.

However, there is a considerable upside to a period of what you might call “innocent naivety”. It gives you a clarity and freedom of thought that is denied to those who “know the system”. So this period of “innocent naivety” is actually a precious gift. It does not last long, but it needs to be used. It is the best opportunity a newcomer has to challenge traditional ways of doing things, establish new ways of working or change departmental procedures. 

The lesson I learnt from my TV career is that if it seems blindingly obvious on first contact that something doesn’t work or is unnecessarily complex or fails to deliver what it is supposed to deliver then this instinct is usually right. Attempts will often be made to persuade you that your instinct is somehow mistaken. In my experience this is very rarely the case. 

So far I find the role of being a minister an exciting one. I am working with an excellent team of officers who are passionate about their work. The Council of Ministers is committed to tackling the island’s big challenges and working together in that cause. We have a Chief Minister who is genuinely collaborative in her approach. I don’t underestimate the challenges but these are good, strong building blocks.

Thinking back to that 85 mile cycle ride in the Pennines, I recall that by the end I was utterly shattered. But I made it over the hills and got to the finish line. The sense of achievement has stayed with me ever since. If I end my ministerial term with a similar sense of achievement then I will be content. 

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