Ministerial initiatives and pet projects

A commentator whose name escapes me said on TV that the Chancellor’s autumn statement had all the hallmarks of Gordon Brown given the number of ‘micro announcements’ that were contained in it. In a nutshell the commentator asked whether issues such as tolls on the Humber Bridge should have even been on his radar given the responsibilities of that office of state. Minister for roads, perhaps (especially if the issue feeds into wider plans to deal with congestion for example).

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

It’s understandable for ministers to want to set a thousand-and-one initiatives off when they get into office. After all, you are given a private office and a whole host of civil service policy teams whose job amongst other things is to deliver what you ask them to. In the context of previous administrations, there was also the challenge of a short life expectancy in office. Regular reshuffles meant that new ministers had to hit the ground running – running very fast. One of the regular complaints from those on the ground was that initiatives did not have nearly enough time for planning and delivery for them to make a decent impact on the ground. The other main regular complaint was lack of certainty of funding – which in those days was annual. This created a bureaucratic challenge of having to reapply for funding every year – assuming the scheme delivering that funding was still in place.

The inevitable problem with having a thousand-and-one schemes and initiatives is co-ordination: a programme manager’s nightmare. My first experience of project and programme management involved supporting a project board that had the input of about ten different Whitehall departments as well as representation from local government and the voluntary sector. (Getting them all in the same room at the same time on a regular basis was just one of the challenges, let alone finding consensus). My next experience of it was trying to keep tabs on the finances of a number of different projects and initiatives that fell within my division…finding out the hard way that my carefully-laid plans were only as stable as the job life expectancy of the ministers that I reported to. A ministerial reshuffle can mean that the pet project that has been commissioned by one minister is scrapped under the next one – leading to the problems of cancelled contracts (which inevitably lead to cancellation fees and tax payers money poured down the drain).

Organising the flower bed

Page 49 of the Autumn Statement has an interesting breakdown of who will be getting what as far as infrastructure spending is concerned. Page 46 has the tax changes – the likes of which make me wonder why our tax system is so complicated. Is this a result of decades of similar ministerial initiatives? A tax break here, a concession there, a clamp down somewhere else? The more complex it is, the more difficult it is (I think) to model for the effects and impacts of the changes. It is also one of those things that allows politicians to spin their way out of bad headlines. ‘Income tax’ may not rise but if national insurance contributions rise instead, then the effect is still a rise on taxes on income.

Thus you have the complexity of co-ordinating all of this. One of the Achilles heel’s of any government is trying to ensure that your policies are co-ordinated and are supporting each other. In recent days it was the policies around job creation vs the impact of the funding and job cuts in the public sector. Other examples are trying to promote community cohesion between people of religious faith and none and the growth in numbers of state-funded schools run by religious organisations (which in my view inevitably segregate children on the lines of the religious views of their parents).

Running a large organisation

For all of the sins of the Coalition (of which there are more than many – remember that as far as I’m concerned my job and career was zapped by them), observing how it functions makes for interesting watching for public administration and policy geeks like myself. Political parties are coalitions in themselves – whether it’s the Labour Party that can have John McDonnell and Tony Blair together, the Conservatives with Ken Clarke and Bill Cash or the Lib Dems who are themselves an alliance of the old Liberal Party (David Steel) and the Social Democratic Party under David Owen and Shirley Williams who broke away from Labour in the early 1980s. Under the Coalition of today, the differences are more formalised with the various cabinet committees being structured in a manner to resolve policy differences between the two political parties. Because of this negotiated framework, along with the political principle of ‘the state should do less’, you don’t see nearly as much of the ministerial initiatives today that we saw under the last Labour administration.

One of the things I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts is the need for ministers to understand how large organisations function. As former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said, there is no training course/qualification on what to do as a minister. I did pick something up when I read Michael Hestletine’s autobiography “Life in the Jungle” during my post-grad history days. One of the things that I took from what he wrote was that he understood how large organisations functioned, and turned around the functioning of the then Department for Trade and Industry as a result. Essentially he made clear to his civil servants that there was a whole series of data and information that he did not currently have that would need to be collected and presented to him on a regular basis to inform his decision making. He also made clear what sort of decisions were the ones that needed to be escalated to him, and which ones could be delegated down to junior ministers.

“Are our senior politicians fit for purpose?”

This then brings us to the issue of the calibre and competency of individuals that hold ministerial office. A great politician does not necessarily make for a great minister – and vice versa. Some of the most effective and popular party political figures and parliamentary debaters can find themselves like fish out of water in the decision-making hothouse that is a ministerial office. Amongst other things, I think this is because the latter involves:

  • having to make difficult decisions on a regular basis
  • trusting the advice of non-party-political civil servants who are providing you with that advice
  • accepting that you will be accountable for things that have happened under your watch

If you are an über-tribal party-political creature who wants to maintain your popular or populist image, the last thing you want to do is to have to make decisions on a regular basis that will tarnish that image. You also are less likely to be comfortable taking the advice of those who are not within your political tribe – look at the explosion of party political advisers attached to the civil service in recent times. Finally, the idea of accepting accountability and responsibility for bad stuff that has happened on your watch that you had not done directly yourself…exactly.

Yet when running a large organisation, making difficult decisions on a regular basis is one of the things that you are paid a very high salary for. This also means taking on the advice and recommendations of professionals in your decision-making. (Your job is to scrutinise, interrogate and ask questions of that advice before taking a decision on how to proceed). Finally, there is accepting the accountability. Did you ensure that suitable controls, systems and processes were in place to inform your decision making and reduce the likelihood of bad stuff happening? All of that stuff doesn’t sound like much fun for a party-political type who understandably wants to ‘get stuck in’, get stuff delivered then stand up on public platforms to tell the world how wonderful their party is and how ‘orrible the other lot are. Commissioning a pet project, watching it blossom and defending it from all-comers is great fun for politicians. Some of the most robust defences I’ve seen from ministers that I’ve worked with have been on the back of criticism of projects and programmes that they have a strong personal stake in as well as being much more knowledgeable about.

All that data and information

There have been a huge number of projects, programmes, pilots, schemes and initiatives done over recent years, with billions spent on them too. But where does that learning go? The traditional mindset of Whitehall was very much along the lines of commissioning and running some pilots, monitoring and evaluating them and then somehow ‘rolling them out’ across the country. But what happened to them all?

There’s a Ph.D proposal for a social policy student: Scan every White Paper published under the Labour Governments of 1997-2010, identify every scheme going, find out how much money was spent, what they delivered and how successful they were. Get the data and publish. It would be interesting to see a summary table (which paradoxically would be huge) containing all of that information along with hyperlinks to the details. That way people everywhere could get a feel for what worked and what didn’t. There are some fantastic ideas out there, it’s just that no one knows about them or they’ve been forgotten about. It would also be a useful resource to civil servants and policy makers to find out what has been tried before.

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