A peep behind the seamless robe of state

And so we line up to say our welcome to Michael Ellis, the new roads minister at the Department for Transport.

What happens when a new minister arrives in post?

I can't be completely sure of Mr Ellis's experience, but unless things have changed quite dramatically since I left the DfT four years ago the civil servants in the department will have been working with the team in the ministerial private office to generate a set of briefing folders for the incomer including: one on the engagements the new minister has inherited from his predecessor's diary; one on the 'live' issues that are going to need early decisions over the next week, month and six months; one on the people the new minister is encouraged to meet with; and one of more detailed background briefing on the issues in the new minister's portfolio plus the issues at large in the department which will pass his desk as a member of the ministerial team.

You might from this suspect that the officials are looking to drown the new minister in material, after all, looking down the list of Mr Ellis's policy responsibilities on Gov.UK you can't escape the fact that it is indeed extensive. But no, the most senior officials and the Minister's private secretary will be endeavouring to serve up the briefing, including meetings with the internal policy leads, at a pace that balances what the minister can absorb with the fact that the tide of incoming business waits for no minister, however new they may be.

No-one should under-estimate the challenge of picking up a ministerial portfolio, as many former ministers have documented in their autobiographies. There is no breathing space. Parliamentary questions will require ministerial answer, MPs' correspondence will beg a ministerial reply, and a phalanx of departmental stakeholders will be hammering on the door anxious to share their wisdom with the new appointee, each convinced that their list of issues should be top of the IN tray, all at a time when the new incumbent might be understandably reluctant to take decisions based on limited knowledge which might later prove something of a hostage to fortune. Happily, the departmental officials will be alive to the risks and keen to help the new minister avoid the traps that might trip the unwary.

The challenge for the officials is that even when a change of minister arises from a reshuffle rather than a change of government, they are dealing with a new individual who might have views and a preferred working approach that is quite different to those of their predecessor. As recent events have amply demonstrated there can be, shall we say, a wide spectrum of opinions within a political party. None of us arrives in a post devoid of our own thoughts, particularly if we have the background of being a constituency MP. So the civil servants will be feeling their way to try to establish the thrust of the new minister.

Initiatives close to the heart of one minister, which might have absorbed many hours of official time in preparation, may slip from top priority to the 'if time permits' list for their successor.

Alongside all that, though, the officials will be trying to work out how they can best fit around the new minister's working style. The question many officials across the DfT family will be asking each other of the new minister as I write this will be: "what's he like?".

I recall working with a minister whose preference was to be sent a detailed written brief and be left alone to read it. And having read it, they reached a decision. Which rather caught the department on the hop, because practically all the previous incumbents of the job had wanted a chance to discuss the options with their advisers before backing a course of action. Not this one, who was already on to the next issue.

Back in 1997 I recall the move to use cutting edge technology to help with the briefing – PowerPoint slides! Such novelty. Mind you, we still backed that up with many thousands of written words for, we only discovered later, a minister who rather disliked reading, preferring a set of numbers over an eloquent essay any day.

By 2010 the use of a printed A4 slide pack had become the norm as the basis for oral briefings, often crammed with images, tables, graphs and so on. Many hours would be spent crafting these hard-copy documents, so you can imagine the dismay on the faces of officials when at least one minister of my acquaintance on being presented with such a pack politely but firmly handed it back.

So, if, like me, you are one of those aforementioned departmental stakeholders, anxious to help Mr Ellis see the world as you see it, then let me offer you two pieces of advice from my past life – first, have a go at putting yourself in his shoes before launching into your own list of demands, and second, before heading off to your first meeting take the time to ask your friendly civil service contact to give you a steer on that all-important question: "what's he like?"

The coming days will tell.

 Steve Gooding is the director for RAC Foundation