Opinion: What makes an effective minister?

A view of the Parliament chambers of Edinburgh. Photo by: Ferran Feixas / Unsplash / CC0

The role of ministers of education and health is pivotal to developing the human capital essential for sustainable economic development. These sectors together usually account for the lion’s share of the national budget, they are often the largest employers, and they provide critical frontline public services.

Yet the global commitment to universal education and health coverage has compelled many developing country governments to make commitments they can hardly afford, overloading already poorly resourced delivery systems and compromising prospects of better quality education and health care.

It is hard to be a visionary minister in the face of these challenges. And even if a minister can sustain an optimistic vision, it is harder still to implement transformative change in government.

There is no “school for ministers,” and no job that really prepares for the role. The Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program provides a unique opportunity for education and health ministers to step back from the pressure of their daily duties, to reflect on their purpose and vision, and to map the legacy they want to achieve while in office and how to get it done.

The 150 ministers from 60 countries who have participated in the Harvard program since 2012 provide personal insights into the challenges ministers face and understanding of what makes an effective minister.

A political navigator

Ministers know that their tenure as minister is always on the line. This level of job insecurity creates a bipolar reality for most: making ministers instinctively risk-averse, while pushing them to reach for ambitious goals.

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An effective minister is able to combine good judgment with far-reaching vision. This is often a function of prior experience. Ministers are chosen from diverse backgrounds, typically with no connection to the portfolio for which they have been selected.

Some alumni of the Harvard program were selected from the private sector with no government experience, while others were shuffled from one cabinet position to another in which they had limited expertise.

While a fresh perspective can lead to innovation and transformation in a ministry, the most common side effect is lack of continuity. One former health minister has said the biggest mistake a new minister can make is to throw out everything accomplished by their predecessor. An effective minister will build on the best aspects of their predecessor’s legacy and will be humble enough to learn from what has been done before.

Social sector ministries are usually in competition with each other for a greater slice of the national budget. An effective minister must be a good political navigator in order to accomplish their goals and most particularly, an effective minister must speak the language of the finance minister.

Cross-sectoral alignment of priorities and investments within the context of broader economic development strategy substantially increases the impact of available resources. Health and education ministers face the additional challenges of inefficient delivery systems, overburdened and often limited infrastructure, and demotivated personnel.

An effective minister must also be a good manager. A government minister has to work with a professional civil service, which by its nature is designed to preserve the status quo. If a minister does not build trust and shared purpose with their ministry, the bureaucracy can thwart a minister’s ambitions.

In terms of leadership, a good minister must assemble an effective team. Winning the confidence of the bureaucracy is critical to getting things done in government. Equally important is a vision with a clear plan, a budget, and a concrete implementation strategy. Too often, ministers are big on ideas but short on implementation.

An implementer

Often implementation is “outsourced’ to the lower-levels of the ministry. An effective minister micromanages implementation.

Some of the most effective alumni of the Harvard program set up a dedicated delivery unit adjunct to their offices to provide real-time information on implementation progress to the minister as well as technical support to the responsible line managers in the ministry. The role of reliable real-time data in driving performance is critical.

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A further factor that can sidetrack the implementation of a minister’s legacy is daily crisis management. In health and education, there is always a crisis du jour. An effective minister has to be able to fight fires while keeping their “eyes on the prize.” This is another reason why a delivery unit can be effective in driving implementation of the minister’s mission even while the minister might be distracted by other events.    

A final stand out feature of an effective minister is humility. Governing shrouds ministers in protocol and procedures which, if taken too seriously, can lead to the minister’s isolation. This often significantly limits a minister’s ability to hear bad news and take corrective action. One former long-serving education minister told a gathering of recently appointed ministers that the best advice he could give is to “keep your feet on the ground.”    

Lessons for ministers

Pressures and expectations on any new minister are substantial, further amplified by the election countdown clock from the first day in office.

Here are the fundamentals that ministers can use to increase their likelihood of changing their countries for the better:

• Being disciplined about focusing on priority goals rather than distracted by putting out fires.
• Attending to the basic delivery and programmatic functions in health and education rather than Band-Aid solutions.
• Focusing on the efficiency of existing funds rather than chasing new funds.
• Collaborating with other ministries to achieve financial and operational economies of scale.
• Empowering people to build capacity and ensure staying power.

About the authors

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    Michael Sinclair

    Michael Sinclair is the executive director of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program, which he has led since its inception in 2011. Under his leadership, the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program has worked with over 148 ministers of health, education, and finance from over 60 countries around the world. Previously, Sinclair served as senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation for more than 20 years where he was responsible for the Foundation's extensive programming in South Africa to support health system governance, combat child malnutrition, establish comprehensive reproductive health services, and improve access to prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS. He also has extensive experience working at the ministerial level in sub-Saharan Africa generally, as well as Latin America and Asia to facilitate sharing of global health reform experience, increase leadership effectiveness, and contribute to health systems strengthening.
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    Karima Ladhani

    Karima Ladhani is the assistant director of program research and development of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program where she leads development and implementation of in-country support for ministries of health and education. She brings expertise in health and education systems strengthening, social innovation, as well as strategic planning and development from international experience across Africa and Asia. She is also the founder & CEO of Barakat Bundle, an award-winning social enterprise that creates life-saving care and education bundles for mothers and newborns in South Asia.