Main themes from the BGI’s Ditchley Conference: Sir Richard Mottram’s summary

Posted on: July 8th, 2014

The aim of this conference was to look ahead to next May’s general election and beyond. What challenges would a new Government of whatever form face? What lessons could be learned from the coalition experience?

The Conference report sets out some of the points that emerged in the discussion. I might briefly set the scene on some of the underlying issues that struck me and my BGI colleagues.

First, there was a recognition that the world around us was changing quickly whether in terms of technology or how people engaged with each other and with government. Power was being distributed. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish referendum, there would be a profound impact on our constitutional arrangements and muddling through might no longer do (although there was no appetite for a written constitution). Governing at the UK level may be about to get harder.

Secondly, while international comparisons suggested we could take pride in the integrity of our system of government, there was an uneasy feeling that in a scorecard based on the incidence of “blunders” we might have a worryingly high score in comparison with other advanced “western” nations. It would be helpful to get a better sense of whether this is the case and, if so, why? Some of the answer might lie in the pace of politically-driven change where a more considered, evidence-based approach might well yield dividends. There were also awkward questions about how we recruit, develop and move around the system both politicians and civil servants.

Thirdly, there was recognition that government is not a business or a collection of businesses but that it might have something to learn from how the best businesses align and embed objectives across the whole of their organisation and build mutual commitment to success. The separate “tribes” in government, parliament and the judiciary did not interact enough, informally as well as formally, and too much of the debate around accountability was about buck passing and blame. What would a culture of success look like (recognising the asymmetry in the world of politics, as refracted through the media, in interest in success as opposed to failure)? While the “trust” word may be in danger of overuse, there were clearly big trust issues that needed to be tackled.

Lastly, there was a suggestion that much of the discourse of government in the last 30 years had been based around rather crude versions of nostrums about public management linked to equally crude understandings of the discipline of economics. This era might be drawing to a close. We had, for example, to ensure policymaking and delivery were linked together. Markets were potentially better than monopoly, whether in terms of delivery by public, private or third sector delivery agents, but this required considerable skill in commissioning and market making and regulation.