Thoughts for an incoming Government: running a Government

Posted on: August 29th, 2014

Each of the political parties is beginning to consider how it will organise government to implement its policies if elected at the 2015 General Election. The Better Government Initiative believes that there is a handful of fundamental things that a Prime Minster needs to get right in the organisation and running of the Government if it is to be a success. The party leaders should be thinking about these issues now.

First, government is a joint endeavour in which success depends on team effort. The Prime Minister needs to run the Government as a team and to encourage a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation between Ministers. The Prime Minister should deal with the Cabinet on that basis and encourage Secretaries of State to manage their ministerial teams in the same spirit. Competing priorities between departments are inevitable; ‘departmentalitis’ is not.

Second, the relationship between the centre and departments needs to be right. Only the centre can develop, maintain and articulate an over-arching strategy for the Government. The Prime Minister needs around him a team capable of producing that over-arching strategy and of ensuring that departmental strategies fit into it. While that team should be capable if necessary of challenging departments on the biggest issues, it should not micro-manage them, not least because it does not have their specialist expertise
Third, good government acknowledges the fact that most issues are inter-connected and all the most important ones cross departmental boundaries. Major issues are often best looked at in clusters and the aim should be to achieve policy coherence in those clusters. Governments have tended to compartmentalise issues (e.g. focusing on the NHS instead of health more broadly). There are a number of things a Prime Minister can do to tackle this. He or she might consider preparation of a plan with a clear list of priorities not confined within departmental boundaries, as tried recently in New Zealand. Related groups of issues need to be considered properly through the tried and tested Cabinet Committee system, not settled bilaterally outside it. And there are other, complementary approaches, most used to some extent by recent Governments, which will help – Ministers with responsibilities in more than one department, inter-departmental objectives, shared budgets and so forth.

Fourth, effective policy-making has a number of essential elements. Departments need to be thorough in their use of evidence and research, the analysis of risks and the assessment of costs, benefits and fiscal impact. They need to publish clear statements of what they propose to do and why and what alternatives they have considered. They need to consult properly, not just go through the motions. And there must be systematic evaluation of success. Where legislation is needed Parliament should be given time to examine it fully. We support the recommendations of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee for the adoption of explicit standards for the preparation of legislation and the establishment of a Legislative Standards Committee.

Fifth, machinery of government changes need to be avoided if possible. Many Prime Ministers seem not to have understood just how destabilising, disruptive and expensive constant tinkering with the structure of departments can be. If the next Government wants effective implementation of its programme the worst thing it could possibly do is to make extensive machinery of government changes.

We have written extensively about all of these issues in our two published reports: Good Government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive (November 2010) and Good Government: Mid Term Review (November 2012).