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10 July 2024

How Labour can make government work better

The party’s success in office will be determined by how well its “mission-driven” agenda is communicated to the civil service.

By Pamela Dow

One of the new Labour government’s greatest challenges will be expanding the capacity of the British state. Achieving anything – economic growth, reduced crime – requires good people, ideas and technology. In that order. That was the mantra of John Boyd, the military strategist who revolutionised aerial combat.

Government is not war but, with 13 years in Whitehall, I have come to appreciate that this maxim also applies to 21st-century government. Yet almost every audit since 2020 has exposed a serious deficit. For example, regarding people, there’s a critical need for domain-specific knowledge in the civil service, for deep expertise rather than the current emphasis on transferable skills or “competencies”. (Civil service HR abounds in such airy bromides.) Building back that knowledge will take time.

Similarly, strategic investment in the technology that improves public services – automating routine, high-volume tasks to free up human hours – has been neglected. That leaves ideas. And Labour’s big idea is “mission-driven government”, “raising our sights as a nation and focusing on ambitious, measurable, long-term objectives”. Mission government is a new name for a perennial ambition of “joined-up government”. It has potential, but only if lessons are learned from the past.

Labour’s missions are a conscious echo of Mariana Mazzucato’s arguments in her book Mission Economy. She used the Apollo space programme to make the case for ambitious, active government ownership. But what worked at Nasa does not necessarily work across an entire state. And where a mission approach is less likely to work is in its application to the entirety of government, all of the time.

The new government’s missions are ambitious: “take back our streets” and “break down barriers to opportunity” are stirring imperatives. Pithy labels aren’t inherently a problem; “fly to the moon” was a clear goal, specific and measurable, and underpinned by sustained commitment and resources. Campaign slogans become a problem in policymaking when what’s behind them is imprecise. Within the laudable goal of taking back streets, ministers will have to choose whether prevention, detection or town planning is their priority. They’ll face difficult choices between empowering local leaders or reducing the postcode lottery.

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The new teams will need to be clear about how they will know the ambitious target is met. Are they measuring perceived or actual crime? Committed, recorded, tried or sentenced? We could take back the streets swiftly with six months’ effort to incapacitate the small number of young men who commit the most violent and antisocial crimes, until they grow out of it. But that would mean an honest and difficult conversation with criminal justice lobbies about what works to reduce reoffending.

All this requires hard decisions and clear, consistent communication across a huge system. The combined headcount of the Home Office and departments for justice, education, housing, work and transport is around 215,000, excluding delivery agencies. Each person will need to understand the mission and its implications for what they do each day.

Sometimes rearranging the structures of Whitehall can cut through this crowd, indicating the importance of a goal and uniting relevant teams. But such changes carry huge costs, and successful restructuring would require Labour to pay close attention to the best case study from recent history: the public service agreements (PSAs) of the Blair and Brown years. In an attempt to establish greater Treasury control over spending, then adviser Ed Balls created PSAs in 1998. By 2001, Tony Blair was frustrated at the lack of progress. He brought the education department’s head of standards, Michael Barber, to No 10 to give PSAs clarity and rigour, focusing only on specific targets in transport, education, crime and health.

By 2005 progress was visible, notably in rail punctuality, A&E waiting times, and GP appointments met. But by 2007, Barber and Blair had moved on and the discipline was lost. The PSA infrastructure morphed into 30 “outcomes”, measured by more than 100 indicators and managed by multiple boards involving thousands of people. Accountability was complex in theory, confused in practice, and absent in reality.

The most important principle I learned from witnessing PSA boards in action is that if something is everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem. “It takes a village to raise a child” is a charming adage, and “the village” might well keep the child away from the fire or road. It takes the unconditional love of a few grown-ups to make sure the child thrives. So too for missions. One minister working with one small, multi-sector team of talented people is quicker and more effective than a board overseeing grids.

One of my favourite coalition stories is of a cabinet minister’s response to the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s plea to end silo-working and Balkanisation in Whitehall. “Silos gave us sustainable grain storage and an effective missile deterrent,” the minister quipped. “Former Yugoslavia was a tinderbox of ethnic tension and territorial rivalries; the Balkans are now a thriving region of proud nation states.” The mischievous point was grounded in lived experience. If the Labour Party is really on a mission, it should take note.

Pamela Dow is a former senior civil servant and co-founder and chief operating officer of Civic Future

[See also: Britain’s shock of the new]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change