Government Matters – Part 2

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Government is being judged increasingly by its delivery

The constitutional changes have been mighty: devolution for Scotland and Wales, reform of the House of Lords, independent and open interest rate setting, the Human Rights Act and coming semi-independence for the Statistical Office.  The changes are all about putting the right framework in place to produce good decisions and effective implementation.  In the long run, the constitution for any organisation will determine its success far more than the specific people in power at any one time.  Process matters.  Heroes appear very occasionally and are short-lived.  More constitutional and process change is essential, but the government’s comparative record here is outstanding.

Management of the economy has also been very successful.  Yes, there is luck: the developed world is generally on the up and governments have less control over national performance than they or we think.  But caution, due care and attention and heeding the lessons of history (the economy bites the hand that feeds it) have their reward.

Transport is a mixed bag.  The privatised railways have been brought back from the brink.  The next stop was passengers travelling on carriage roofs in a caricature of 1960s Indian Railways.  Stronger regulation has been effective.  Performance has improved, to the government’s credit.  But the UK is still a soft touch for regulation of monopoly providers across-the-board.  Elsewhere in transport, I see many plans, no change and occasional bursts of old thinking.  Where’s the thinking on the scale to match the problem?  If the problem is tough, at least demonstrate the thinking.  For example, don’t attack cars (we all use and depend on them), do go after the effects of the car: noise and chemical pollution.  Promote the benefits of cycling and walking not the disbenefits of driving.  Change the mindset towards public transport infrastructure being viewed as an optional extra, to its essential growth in line with demand. If electricity and water were rationed as transport infrastructure is, it would be regarded as absurd.  And so on.

Health has NHS Direct – unexperienced by me, but with a good and innovative reputation; and, at last, recognition that large sums of money are necessary to meet public aspiration for healthcare.  Otherwise, not much has happened and no sign (but perhaps I missed it) of examining successful continental European models nor of emphasising keeping people healthy (cheap) rather than curing them once ill (ultra-expensive).

Much has been put in place to re-include the socially excluded.  The Surestart programme is a stunning innovation for the UK. The proof will be in its implementation.  It will take 10+ years to start to change communities. With the new deal, tax redistribution and other measures the slow process of reconditioning personal horizons is underway.

Crime does what crime does.  The excellent innovations in youth justice and remedy sentencing will again take time to bear fruit.  The family agenda alongside employment measures and re-inclusion are probably the major means to reduce the crime that matters.  The government has done more on the family than most of its predecessors put together, but still appears not to appreciate its significance to almost every part of its remit.

Education has the curricula for non-academic subjects almost up and running – personal, social and health education and citizenship.  If it works, this will rank with the Open University and higher education expansion as the 3 major post-war achievements.   Parents are registering improvements in their children’s education, but the planning has been more noticeable than the effects to those without school-age children.

The process of government is not attuned to consistent reliable delivery.

Roughly, the process of government works like this.  Two parties compete for power.  Individuals within each party compete to become MPs and thence to govern as ministers.  This group of ministers makes decision based on their own views and on wider information and experience that they chose and/or have time to collect, and on the advice of a very small group of political advisors and a very large group of policy-makers (civil servants).  When a decision goes through parliament, MPs, the media and lobby interests become involved through a variety of formal and informal mechanisms.  Implementation occurs via government agencies of various kinds exercising direct change or seeking to influence others.  Some is very simple – a tax rate change.  Most is extraordinarily complex – improving children’s education, reducing crime or increasing manufacturing productivity.   Feedback on the effectiveness of implementation is patchy, although this government has shown a commitment to evaluation unheard of from any of its predecessors.  The link between evaluation and adjustment or change in decision and/or implementation is, at best, indistinct and certainly not yet an established part of government.  This government is using performance measures to drive implementation in many areas – a step change in their use.

It is not surprising that the process of government is not attuned to consistent reliable delivery.  The purpose of government is beneficial change.  But the central civil service, on which government depends to achieve change, is comprised of mainly ‘policy-makers’, when the purpose requires a cadre of expert change agents.  Hardly surprising then that many government actions have unintended consequences or the reverse outcome when this role is so miscast.

Few jobs in modern society and certainly no professions can be undertaken without any formal training or qualification.  The exception is a politician and, even more alarmingly, a government minister.  The formal training required of a McDonalds’ employer is greater than that of a prime minister.

The process for producing a sufficient and continuous flow of people skilled and competent to undertake the government purpose is misplaced, limited or non-existent.  Hoping that, now and again, a group of self-taught competent people will form the government (as, unusually, we have at present) is not a process.  It is akin to the Football Association’s approach to competing for the World Cup – appoint a manager in a blaze of optimism, and hope.  By contrast, the French have a process which starts with skills coaching of 12 year olds, runs right through to team management and embeds learning, feedback and adaptation.  Producing fitted talent is not about chance and occasional competition.  That is the point: the problem of government (and of any large organisation) is not one of people but of process.

Organisations work best when trained people work co-operatively to common goals.  Personal preferences are abrogated to the greater good.  At the same time, dissension is a duty not least as an antidote to toxic orthodoxies.  Organisations need all sorts of people to flourish including artisans and innovators.

Like most large organisations, government is a multi-dimensional matrix with most ministries being groupings of subject-specific resources.  Most government objectives run across these departments. Cross-departmental glue and oil are vital.  For all the very commendable “joined up” challenge, departmentalism is alive and well; budgeting is department-based not programme or objective orientated; civil servants exercise personal power through playing the departmental card: ‘we can’t reveal our minister’s position’; a few ministers terrify and thus constrain their civil servants; the minister’s red box becomes the purpose; the work ethic dominates the alert ethic; and so on.

Effective organisations deal, as much as possible, in reality – real outcomes, real changes, and real effects.  Pressures always exist to put the best gloss on organisational performance.  But the truth does out and if the gloss masks the need for change then a major fall is on its way.  Dealing in reality means measuring and evaluating and adapting.  Change is an uncertain business.  The learning and feedback channels are vital, as is the wisdom to acknowledge that something did not work.

I hope this limited run round some organisation principles is sufficient to show the potential for improvement here.

Finally, let’s look at the sharp end, beneficial change on the ground.  Government can desire, quite rightly, all sorts of change from traffic speed reduction to consistent education.  It can implement effectively structural and process change.  And next to nothing can happen.  How much really changed in classrooms during the Conservative Governments despite 18 years of hyperactivity?  It is important to reflect on where significant change has occurred, where not despite intentions, and why.  You start to build models of societal change.

One essential ingredient found from the research into organisational change is the need to involve the people who are being asked to change in its design.  Thus designing change in private and then, once designed, announcing it to the world is a flawed and ineffective process. This only works in crisis when the gun is to the head – an insolvent business, for example.  Most government change does not have this imperative.  It is interesting to note how well the Monetary Policy Committee seems to be working in setting interest rates with its open minuting, open debate of members’ positions and wide involvement of the economist community.  Secrecy is usually the enemy of success.

Where next?

The Labour Government has been hugely successful particularly when measured against the alternative.  But measured against what is realistically possible, the opportunity is considerable.  The agenda for change in the process of government is:

  1. constructing a process to increase the flow of competent people throughout the Labour Party
  2. introducing mandatory training for professional politicians including core modules in anthropology, matrix management and change management
  3. changing the role and training of the central civil service to provide change-agents, and banning the term policy
  4. institutionalising and presumably legislating for universal and independent evaluation of government action, and feedback, learning and adaptation
  5. opening up decision-making and involving the recipients of change in its design and implementation
  6. building models of societal change for all spheres of government influence and activity.

A big agenda, a necessary agenda, a fascinating agenda.  Shall we start?


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