Let’s get beyond the all-consuming agony of Brexit. Most of us can agree that we face a ‘make or break’ moment. So now is precisely the time to consider how we might achieve more effective leadership and governance in Whitehall and at key levels in every region and city.
Here are three very straight-forward ideas.
- Free-up the Prime Minister to be Prime Minister
The prime ministerial work load has grown like topsy over the years – and far too much of it is reactive and events-driven. We must cull some of the routine grind. The PM needs more time to think and to question, and be able to concentrate on the ‘important’ over the ‘urgent’. A larger ‘more presidential’ PM office (department) is needed to provide the top level vision and direction setting, leadership and command, as well as top level management at the cross agency and whole of government level.
Tim Shipman and others have recently exposed in shocking detail just how day-to-day and dysfunctional Downing Street has been for years. Truly radical reform of role, function, and culture at this highest level of government is a prerequisite to wider reform and national renewal.
- Appoint three powerful deputy prime ministers: DPM –Foreign and Security; DPM Economy; DPM Society.
Join-up government and turbo-charge effectiveness by discarding the cosy ‘stitch-up’ establishment system of government by very independent departmental barons and baronesses (ministers and civil servants). Embed a new practice whereby a heavyweight ‘proven’ former foreign, defence, or home secretary becomes Deputy PM – Foreign and Security, bringing much greater coherence, joined-up approaches, and efficiences across the four big departments covering hard and soft security.
Ditto for Deputy PM – Economy. Empower the Chancellor to oversee and line- manage trade, business, energy, infrastructure and environment departments.
The Deputy PM – Society oversees health, social care, housing, and local government – again, bringing an all-departments coherence and line management across departments far beyond current practice.
My experience in Whitehall and in UK’s missions at United Nations and NATO headquarters revealed just how badly joined-up UK was across diplomacy, defence, aid, and trade. The establishment of the national security council and a few joint programmes are a start, but they are just a prelude to further radical reform of the sort proposed.
Mrs Thatcher was the last PM who rigorously line-managed key departments. I recall her half day visits to the MOD – they were lightening bolt electric charges striking into pedestrian bureaucracy. As the junior in the branch, I was sent scurrying to produce ‘show again’ better answers to her penetrating questions. Her direct engagement kicked the MOD out of its complacency and sharpened it up to critical effect at a defining stage of the Cold War.
So, let us re-establish proper line management in Whitehall, and with the focus at deputy prime minister level. This will give the prime minister more time and space to carry out top level national ‘CEO’ duties. It will provide opportunity to develop and test deputy PMs – recalling that we have had rather too many dud and flawed PMs over the last seventy years.
A return to rigorous line management of departments will root out underperforming ministers and top civil servants sooner than of late, thereby reducing the scope for long-fuze scandals and wasted billions – of the sort suffered across IT and government procurement, and in housing, energy, transport – indeed in virtually every – department. The pace of change across society and economy and increasingly dangerous geopolitical trends require no less.
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- Appoint secretary of state level bosses for every region
UK is the most centralised top-down, one-size-fits-all developed nation state. It is the most divided and economically and culturally imbalanced nation in Europe. Each other region performs far behind London and the South East which account for 40% of UK output. Every region requires its own boss and champion giving it the love and leadership that Whitehall has consistently failed to deliver. The regional boss needs the seniority and clout to stand up to Whitehall.
The only way to equalize wealth and improve the quality of regional and local governance is to push power down. Regional bosses will be better placed to challenge cumbersome bureaucracy and cultures and to enable innovative and home-grown approaches. They will speed up the introduction of elected mayors and unitary authorities, allowing for better accountability and transparency of decision making. The ‘left behind’ regions must be prioritised so that we can restore regional pride and create a looser and more united new model United Kingdom.
Today’s political leadership structure is completely unfit for 21st century purpose. Its design is centuries old and too centralised. Yet no one is in charge, not even the prime minister. At every level divide and rule, fbureaucracy, and risk aversion undermine effective leadership. Turf wars and egos impede joined-up whole of government approaches.
If we are to rise to the post-Brexit challenge we have to build on our many strengths and provide our innovators and entrepreneurs the chance to grow the economy. This will not happen until we transform our fundamental governance structure which has prevented us from becoming world class in two pivotal areas: policy design and setting, and public service delivery.
The usual pat answers given for our below-par performance as the fifth largest global economy – woeful lack of leadership, vision, decent policies, and inadequate funding – of course apply too. But they have done so for each of the last twenty plus years, irrespective of political party in government. Simply focusing on these stock issues of normal party politics and wrangling over manifestos is not enough to get us over this fundamental blockage posed by our flawed governance structure.
By improving government functionality, speeding devolution and delegation downwards, and re-establishing proper line management of government departments at deputy prime minister level we may have a chance of safeguarding British society and moderate politics. In the post-Brexit era our regions and cities must have more control of their own destinies. If we continue with ‘same old’ we risk further division, revenge at the ballot box, and accelerating to government by alternating extremes.
Nigel Hall is CEO of NHJ Strategic Consulting and a former Whitehall insider