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The Handbook for Ministers: Leadership Advice for Elected Officals

Posted: 02/17/11 02:48 PM ET

When the UK's Conservative and Liberal Democratic coalition swept into power last spring, a problem was apparent: What to do with all the neophytes?

Like half the new Republicans in our own 112th Congress, many Parliamentary freshmen had no previous experience with elected office. But matters were a little more urgent in Britain, where the law requires Prime Minister David Cameron to select all his new ministers -- his Cabinet secretaries, essentially -- from Parliament's rabble of elected members.

Luckily for the nation, a practical solution emerged in the form of an idiot's guide written by Rod Clark, head of the UK's National School of Government, a kind of academy for the civil service.

According to the London-based Independent newspaper, which acquired documents with a freedom-of-information request, "The Handbook for Ministers" includes helpful recommendations on ingratiating oneself to the staff with a round of Danish pastries and getting down to the gym once in a while.

Step one: "Convince reception that you are, in fact, a new minister and hence allowed in."

Thoughtfully, the guide anticipates the cynicism and existential anxiety any new politician can face. "Why am I here?" it reflects at one point. Indeed.

Elected representatives in Britain and the U.S. already undergo basic orientation seminars, where they receive keys to the executive latrine, presumably, and learn the dark art of larding a bill. But as of yet no program seems to have been invented to make them better at actually running the government, at least if we believe recent polls, which say that nearly 60 percent of Britain dislikes Cameron's coalition government while Congress has managed to anger about one out of every two Americans.

Courageously, the private sector has stepped in to help. A lobby called The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, for instance, declared last month that "a top priority...in the months ahead will be educating new members of Congress about the importance of our member companies to the American economy and the vital role their products play in all Americans' lives."

So generous of them.

For those craving a more well-rounded indoctrination, Harvard University has invited newly elected Representatives of all political persuasions to its Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress every election year since 1972. The newbies attend day and night seminars conducted by intellectual heavy weights from Harvard's own faculty. Camp alumni also drop by to tell the freshmen what to expect out of life back at the capital.

But Britain's novice politicians slated to head ministries need to acquire leadership skills, and for that only hands-on experience and intuition will do, explained George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics. Since each ministry has a full-time staff of civil servants who manage day-to-day affairs, he likened ministers to executive chefs who designs the menu but don't actually cook.

Likewise, his colleague, Professor Patrick Dunleavy, has co-written a paper arguing that the best leaders delegate decision-making to their subordinates. The most effective deal-making occurs when leaders cut their staff loose and let them hash things out together, wonk-to-wonk.

And so, rather than thumbing through a handbook, Britain's new leadership might have simply contemplated the words of former Defense minister Kevan Jones: "I didn't buy any Danish pastries -- I'd expect them to be bought for me."

Top Ten Tips from the Handbook for Ministers:

1. Enjoy it! If you do, it will inspire others as well.
2. Your diary secretary is your new best friend.
3. Prep, prep, prep. Preparation is vital.
4. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Don't put decisions off -- they're
the essence of being a minister.
5. Prioritization. The department's priorities and definition of what
is important may differ from your own.
6. Explain Parliament to your private office.
7. Keep your political edge. Don't get cut off from colleagues.
8. Communicate with your Secretary of State - either through
structured catch-up sessions or more ad hoc.
9. Special Advisers and Permanent Secretaries are not just for the
Secretary of State.
10. Make space for families -- e.g. don't have red boxes delivered at
7am on a Saturday morning.