Why is everything going wrong? 2: Mission

by | 12 Oct 2021

The key to effective government isn't knowing what you want to achieve but having a consistent, thorough understanding of how you are going to achieve it

Government is never only about management and presentation. A successful government requires a clear, defining mission if it is not to drift and become either ineffectual, chaotic or incoherent. And if a mission is to be rooted in anything other than adjectives it needs to stem from a consistent analytical base.

This is to say that far from ‘ideology’ being harmful to policy development, it is fundamental. If you are to create a coherent package of policies across a wide range of policy areas and have these all push in broadly similar directions, each needs to share some of the ‘DNA’ of the others. This is achieved if each of them stems from a similar analysis of the problems you are addressing.

It doesn’t technically matter what that analysis is – it can be that there is too much interference in a free market and regulation should be reduced, that collective provision and intervention can overcome the failures in the market or that the problem relates to the structure of the bureaucracy of delivery (among other possible analyses).

The point isn’t whether there is consensus which agrees or disagrees with the analysis or whether it is ‘right’ or not, it’s that if you don’t have a consistent analysis, a consistent mission, whatever you do is almost bound to become disjointed and fragmented.

A mission isn’t about the ‘kind of world’ you want to create, it’s about why the world we have now isn’t that world and what do you need to do to change it. You can’t derive a mission from adjectives alone – almost everyone wants things to get ‘better’, ‘fairer’, ‘more successful’, ‘greener’ and so on. The question is not ‘what?’ but ‘how?’.

The Scottish Government has a central mission defined largely by adjectives. If there is a mission it seems to be ‘look good’ and ‘manage well’. Unfortunately it is not possible to impose these goals on top of a disconnected policy programme; if you try, the result is you can neither manage the programme effectively nor deliver outcomes that look good.

The Scottish Government has a central mission defined largely by adjectives. If there is a mission it seems to be ‘look good’ and ‘manage well’. Unfortunately it is not possible to impose these goals on top of a disconnected policy programme.

Another central problem of being ‘missionless’ will inevitably arise – something must fill the gap that is left by the lack of analysis. With the current Scottish Government this has been an unhelpful combination of deference to lobbying, the crazy over-use of commissions and working groups and the inevitable resort to commercial consultants and ‘lines of least resistance’.

It is a universal truth of government that if you don’t know how to fix something you will quickly find that others claim they do. The outcome is not ‘leading change’ but ‘shopping from’ a pre-prepared menu of options assembled from the asks of vested interests.

These can be in direct contradiction to each other – the Scottish Government ‘shops for’ its rhetoric on the economy from the Wellbeing Alliance but its economic policy largely comes from lobbyists and financial insiders. It leads to the incoherent ‘wellbeing is the key, not growth – but the key to wellbeing is growth’.

If there is an intellectual vacuum in policy development, others must fill it. If it’s not lobbyists it is the civil service. The UK civil service is actually very effective at delivering the missions of governments irrespective of the political stance of the government, but it is not good at creating the mission itself. In that case it will default to ‘what we were already doing’.

Hence the reliance on outsourcing of policy advice – it is not really the civil service’s job to tell you how to run your policy programme, only to deliver it.

The overuse of working groups has similar problems. If a policy is led by the announcement and the content then has to be ‘retrofitted’, it is an easy solution to then dump that task onto a working group or commission. The problem is that these are then created for ‘balance’, which means everyone on the group is likely to come with their own, competing missions.

We can see this in the economic recovery report during the pandemic where the only things that could really be agreed were either fairly banal, abstractions about economic development theory and a smattering of ideas that could get past compromise-making. Had a group been tasked with a ‘recovery – but do it like this’ remit, the outcome would be different.

Nature abhors a vacuum – but so does policy. If there is no substance to the starting point of a new initiative it must gain that substance ‘on the way through’. But that simply means others are effectively then running government policy. It again creates stasis where the vacuum leads to default and incoherence where it is captured by a vested interest.

Put simply, if you don’t know why something is wrong you can’t fix it. A mission is a combination of knowing what you want to fix and how you can do it. Without that, there is no consistent spine to government.

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