Thoughts for an incoming Government: a good start

Posted on: August 22nd, 2014

All newly-elected Governments are keen to implement their manifesto commitments as effectively as possible. There is often a tension between the undertakings which the parties need to give in their manifestos in order to win a General Election and effective implementation of their policies once in Government. However, the Better Government Initiative believes that there is a number of things that the political parties should consider as they plan their policy programmes for the 2015 General Election which will help to ensure that they can achieve effective implementation if they form the next Government.
The key to effective implementation of a new Government’s programme lies in realism about what is achievable and thorough preparation – acknowledging that there are limits to what a party in opposition can do by way of preparation before it gets into government.
Setting aside the question whether a policy is strongly contested politically, those which require ambitious and far-reaching reform are always difficult to implement. A high degree of complexity will compound the difficulties. A department’s capacity to deliver what a new Government wants may be overstretched if it is required to implement major changes in a number of areas simultaneously, especially since most departments have been drastically reduced in size since 2010. If in order to work a new policy requires significant culture change – on the part of the public sector workforce or still more the public itself – this will greatly increase the challenge to successful implementation. If a Government wants effective implementation it must prepare the ground thoroughly.
It is entirely understandable that a new Government should want early and effective implementation of its programme in order that the benefits are apparent by the end of the Parliament and none of the above is to say that implementation of an ambitious programme is impossible. But the chances of success will be much improved if certain conditions are met.
• First, the proposals need to be kept as simple as possible. Complex proposals require more legislation, both primary and secondary, which takes longer to draft, they will involve more elaborate implementation plans and they are harder to explain to those who have to deliver them and those affected. Complexity will especially be an issue if major IT systems have to be amended or replaced. And Ministers should try to avoid repeated changes to their policy as it is implemented.
• Second, Government needs to prioritise so as to concentrate initially on what matters most and on doing it well. This is what successful private sector organisations do. Some policies, even though important, may have to wait until later in the Parliament.
• Third, proper preparation is essential. That means working out a proposal in as much detail as possible, consulting those affected and, if culture change is needed, winning their support. A start needs to be made as soon as possible. Preparation cannot be left until a few months before the election, still less until after the election. An example from 1997 – the New Deal – shows the benefits of thorough preparation and consultation in opposition which enabled the policy to be realised quickly and effectively. Another from 2010 – reform of the National Health Service – shows what difficulty a Government can encounter if it forges ahead with a policy which has not been the subject of thorough preparation before the Election.
Parties in Opposition face greater difficulty than those in Government, which can call on the Civil Service to help to prepare their programme. Opposition parties can look to their own resources to do this work and can no doubt get help from sympathetic think-tanks. But we believe that there is a strong case for the present Government to allow them early consultation with the Civil Service. The existence of the Coalition Government means that both of the other main parties will have access to Civil Service advice as they prepare their future programmes; it is reasonable that the Labour Party should also have access and on a more substantial basis than in the past. With the advent of fixed-term Parliaments, there is no reason why such assistance should not be available now.
Of course, whether such access is granted or not, the Civil Service will make plans to implement the programmes of all three parties as best it can but, without the Prime Minister’s agreement, the resources devoted to this will be limited and the Civil Service will not have the opportunity to influence the development of Labour’s thinking or fully to understand it.
Major changes to services provided by the parts of the public sector outside departments’ direct control (i.e. most public services) present special challenges. Experience suggests that effective implementation of proposals which are opposed by the relevant public sector workforce will be difficult. This is especially so in areas where the influence of professional groups is strong. Their compliance and, if possible, support is desirable. They need to be consulted early and persuaded to back change or at least not to oppose it. If successful implementation depends on culture change among workforces as big as those in the NHS or schools, this will be hard to achieve and will take time.
The task of winning hearts and minds can be shared with the Civil Service and with senior management in the organisations concerned, but is first and foremost one for politicians themselves. Whitehall very often cannot require compliance from these groups: they have if possible to be persuaded and that process needs to start well before an election.
If much of the above seems obvious, it is nevertheless surprising how rarely previous incoming Governments have taken these lessons to heart.