The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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Ministerial competence

Mark Said Sunday, 26 May 2024, 08:28 Last update: about 29 days ago

For the period 2022-2027, our government is made up of no fewer than 18 ministers and eight parliamentary secretaries. The current cabinet is slightly smaller than the one Robert Abela had when he made a reshuffle in 2020 and added three ministers to his already large cabinet, making it 20 ministers and six parliamentary secretaries. Parliamentary secretaries technically do not form part of the cabinet but attend meetings. My aim here, today, is not to question or analyse the merits or demerits of large or small Cabinets but, rather, to assess the competence and qualities of the ministers we have and have had in this and past legislatures.

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Ministers are political navigators, and, as such, their post demands a good measure of competence, knowledge, and experience in the fields and sectors they are entrusted with by the prime minister. Needless to say, not all of our present and past ministers have satisfied these demands and qualities. Ministers know that their tenure as ministers 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.

An effective minister should be able to combine good judgement with a far-reaching vision. This is often a function of prior experience. Ministers are chosen from diverse backgrounds, and, more often than not, they come with no connection to the portfolio for which they have been selected. So how can a minister render himself or herself effective? To be effective, ministers must combine good judgement with far-reaching vision, be savvy political navigators and good managers, implement policies effectively, be competent at handling crises while staying focused on long-term goals, and be humble. The role of ministers 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.

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 still harder to implement transformative change in government. There is no "school for ministers" and no job that really prepares for the role. As it is, hardly any one of our ministers can legitimately claim to be a ‘visionary’ minister. A minister’s tenure can be at risk depending on his or her personal characteristics, political characteristics, and the characteristics of the government in which he or she serves.

An overall assessment of past and recent ministerial tenure durability and the accompanying competency should reveal that educational background increases ministers’ capacity to survive and that female ministers have lower durability and competency risk rates, while older ministers have higher risk rates from that point of view. Experienced ministers have higher risk rates than newly appointed ministers. Ministerial rank increases a minister’s capacity to survive, with full cabinet members having the lowest risk percentage.

In our political system, where policy-making is the primary function of departments, rising to ministerial office represents the height of ambition for most backbenchers. Yet how is one to go about determining which ministers are successful? I perceive that the average length of time ministers serve in the full cabinet is longer in Malta than in many other countries, and this should lead us to the conclusion that Maltese cabinets hardly ever lack experience. Undoubtedly, the present cabinet, when it started off last year, hardly fitted into such a perception. Experience measured by years as a full member of the cabinet has also been on the decline in recent years.

Ministers leave the government for a variety of reasons. Dramatic resignations over office abuse, financial scandals, or policy disagreements are ones that make the headlines, but most ministers end their careers either in a reshuffle or following the fall of a government. Needless to say, such dramatic events hardly hit the headlines on this island, but collective calls for them to happen do make the headlines.

The fall of a government signals a failure in government policy for which each minister, by the terms of collective cabinet responsibility, must share some of the blame. When a minister is shuffled out, he is seen to have served his or her time, perhaps honourably and well, but nevertheless to be replaced by somebody the prime minister believes will do a better job.

Whatever the situation, our country’s survival, in all its senses, is heavily dependent on ministerial competence, starting from the prime minister down. While a fresh perspective can lead to innovation and transformation in a ministry, the most common side effect is a lack of continuity. I recall the current health minister saying the biggest mistake a new minister can make is to throw out everything accomplished by the predecessor. An effective minister will build on the best aspects of the predecessor’s legacy and will be humble enough to learn from what has been done before.

Social sector ministers are usually in competition with each other for a greater slice of the national budget. An effective minister, therefore, 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 a broader economic development strategy substantially increases the impact of available resources. Our health and education ministers continually face the additional challenges of inefficient delivery systems, overburdened and often limited infrastructure, and demotivated personnel.

Above all, 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 a shared purpose with their ministry, the bureaucracy can thwart a minister’s ambitions.

Finally, 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, our ministers are big on ideas but short on implementation.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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